Sheep, goats, angry men in coats.

One of the most troubling elements of recent political life is that some of my fondest theories and literatures are being recast in a new light, and it’s not flattering. The Frankfurt School, comprised of a twitchy bunch of middle-European men, thick in both coat and brow, produced much of the most prescient works on the cultural aspects of consumerist culture.

Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse angrily penned blistering critiques of low culture – films, books, T.V and drew direct lines between consuming this shit and quietly by-standing the Holocaust. More than fifty years on, all of their works are still troublingly apposite, but perhaps what’s become most alarming to me is that their ideas and language have been co-opted by what we might charitably call, ‘the far right’.

Consider this quote from Herbert Marcuse (1964),

Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the Individuals through the way in which it is organised.

Every day some version of this statement will turn up on my Instagram account, usually in the service of those who champion, ‘freedom’. The anti-vax movement didn’t initiate this movement but it networked, refined and mobilised those with nascent views about their ‘freedom’. You know the people I’m talking about – the sovereign citizens, terrain theorists, bio hackers, survivalists etc.,. People I don’t normally think of myself as naturally gravitating towards. Although these people are generally characterised as being racist (something I can’t judge really as I have the privilege of not paying enough attention) what I am absolutely sure they are united by is a sneaky whiff of anti-semitism. The Frankfurt School would be sizzling.

The irony of bleating about the insidious and nefarious social and political manipulation rolled out through instagram is not lost on me. And yet claims about how the mainstream media depoliticises and poisons us, frames junk choices, broadly, controls us, continue apace. Here’s Adorno (1974), not even remotely writing about Instagram,

The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended.

The resonance with today’s current bunch of wellness warriors is acute.

So what to make of this? For me, it’s like discovering that your high minded, moral, well-meaning religion (critical theory) has been adopted by Hillsong. Extremism is the hallmark of ‘not really understanding what the Frankfurt School was on about’. The creation of binary narratives – sheep/goats, blind/seeing, redpilled/bluepilled etc.,. are simplistic meta-narratives that mirror the ones that ‘freedom warriors’ claim to be so keen to resist.

The people who really get on the wagon with the ‘freedom’ talk are doing exactly the same thing as the people who run their lives according to the mainstream consumerism presented to them via the same channels. The sheep and the goats are equally serviceable in a curry. They are all making and producing and reproducing themselves and their identities through the medium of images presented and controlled through social media.

Herbert Marcuse claimed that ultimately, the main aim of the culture industries was to make profit, and I think that’s the right place to start thinking about this. Because although people who are extreme about what we might loosely call ‘the freedom movement’ mediated through social media, it is the social media platforms that make money out of them. They are, to repeat the phrase, the product.

Often, these social media personalities complain about being silenced or moderated or edited by the platform because of their unpopular views (for instance, people having their anti-vax posts removed) but in fact, the posts that get removed are the ones that don’t make the platform enough money. Engagement plus advertisement makes profit.

Perhaps these ‘influencers’, bravely baring their unshaved clackers to the world to give a defiant finger to ‘transhumanism’ are aware that the platform still makes money out of their content, but think it’s an acceptable price to pay for the ability to get the message out.

A vast majority of the content about ‘freedom’ exists in the health sphere, and was consolidated and weaponised by the anti-vax issue. Suddenly, a big part of the ‘wellness’ sphere transmogrified into a tight coalition of ‘paleo-bros’ and ‘bio hackers’ – a very male dominated eco system of tightly wound, mostly white guys who are succesful in part because you can’t smell ketosis through the screen. These people, like many, many others (including me) are convinced that the modern food industries are designed for profit rather than human health. It’s very hard to argue with that. But their criticisms of the corporate structures that engender the ‘food’ economy are refracted through their own bodies, identities and relationships. They use much of the language of the men’s rights movement – that men should be strong, protective, muscle bound, virile etc.,. and that the modern food industry has feminised men and contributed to the breakdown of the modern family.

In other words, the ‘anti authoritarians’ question and reject the meta narratives of science, government, risk and control and replace them with another set of equally controlling hyper individualistic notions of personal sovereignty, that amount to little more than outing themselves as advanced hyper-consumers who are seeking to reproduce much older traditional ideas about the family and masculinity. The main difference between the meta narratives of science, governmentality and risk is the focus on humans as a group whereas the ‘anti-authoritarians’ are extreme individualists. These people are the ultimate consumers – they are performatively made and remade through their relationship to the products they consume.

To be clear – BOTH groups are pretty bad. On the one hand, there’s the mainstream, slavish adherence to ideas about how to be a controlled body – eat mass produced food and consume the ‘mental health’ bullshit that renders you governable. Many of the strategies of government and public health exist to address the obscene rates of illness that are a direct result of corporate negligence in the service of profit.

BUT, the extreme ‘anti-authoritarians’ are doing more or less the same thing – finding their tribe, allowing themselves to be completely preoccupied with their narcissistic individuality, completely obviating the possibility of political engagement in the current omnishambles. They are noisily ‘opting out’ and thinking this will solve everything.

What to make of all this? How to retain my love affair with critical theory as liberation? For me, it’s with the help of two ideas – governmentality and anti semitism.

The idea of an extreme freedom midwived through extreme narcissism and cultivation of the performative individual is little more than the most modern iteration of identity-based, late capitalist consumerism. The appeal of simplistic, formulaic ideas of control (government bad and evil versus plucky heroic freedom warriors) simply reproduces some very well worn patriarchal tropes. It’s Star Wars in yoga pants.

And anti-semitism? Well, the idea that the extreme left and right are connected by anti-semitism isn’t new. The left think that major media corporations are Jewish controlled, and as such, governments dance to their tune. The right are anti-semitic for more tribal reasons. Both frame Judaism as a powerful, controlling force with a ready supply of sleeper foot-soldiers. The Frankfurt School was developed precisely because its founding members were understandably horrified by the way in which the Holocaust could be countenanced by regular, ordinary working people – their friends, neighbours, colleagues and associates. I’m always stunned when I see people at protests holding signs that say, ‘Always wondered who let the Jews be taken away? Now you know’ etc.,. These are always the same people who ascribe to ideas about the global order that aren’t much different to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

And with that, it’s time for me to go and make a potentiated almond goat’s uterus smoothie.

Once again….

I haven’t written anything on this blog, or anywhere else, for months. I’m busy I suppose, but also side-lined, bright-lined and maligned by the endless task of interpreting statistics about disease and the lack thereof. Shifting paradigms.

Increasingly I’m drawn to two orthogonal poles. The first we might broadly refer to as ‘science’ – the shambling, iterative, dirty net curtain of rationality and causality. The second is more sociological or cultural – the idea that there are patterns, fashions, if you like, that characterise different intellectual epochs. These are slippery and developed in concert with their constituent technology. The best example of course, is the current one, our kind of technocratic rationalism, running on the fumes of utilitarianism with the inferred certainty of a kind of social Carnot cycle. In this model, we take scientific rationalism and apply it, writ large, to social problems.

As a fashion, we’ve been subject to this model for quite some time. Bureaucrats carefully but assuredly ‘pulling levers’, feebly adjusting the fuel mix of the economy in the vain hope that it will overcome its chaotic wobbliness. I suppose this is neoliberalism – the promise of certainty, stability in the face of an economic rationalism that perpetually threatens to end it all.

The model is anywhere and everywhere, the language of rational management, the bloodless accounting of society’s ups and downs. Consider the enormous and still flourishing network of ‘mental health’. An institution is sanctified and legitimised once it reaches a certain size and begins to upholster its processes with the baubles of ‘wellbeing’. One is ‘at risk’, then ‘assessed’ then, ‘assessed for risk of immediate harm’ then assessed for one’s ability to ‘engage with processes that might engender a meaningful shifts in outlook’ and then, and then and then. Of course, to those experiencing the pointy end of whatever institutional shafting the Random Shafting Generator has selected for them on any given day, this window-dressing is offensive. And that’s the point. It is, as they say, a feature, not a bug. It shifts blame to the victim, while assiduously ossifying the power of those who seek to create a seamless integration of professional and personal. The shiny-bummed carpet baggers.

Your personal is your political, and your political better get the fuck on board.

Examples abound. Just two days ago, the NSW state government declared a massive increase in funding for Headspace. This is a service that ‘deals with’ mental health issues amongst young people. Only, of course, it doesn’t. Being well acquainted with a former manager of Headspace, I can unsurprisingly inform you, Dear Reader, that Headspace does absolutely nothing for the mental health of those who seek its services. Because it provides nothing. That’s the point. It sits there telling young people who are distressed because they feel alienated from their lives, their families, their nature and their culture, that they have mental health problems. Young people who’re expected to find their way in the world, stumbling along on a diet of chicken salt and Fortnite.

Of course, for those who do, in fact, have mental health problems, like schizophrenia, no help exists at all. It was ever thus. The ex Headspace manager mused about the amount of money that could have been spent on young people with schizophrenia, were it not all being soaked up by the dangly-earring set, feeding teenagers a quaintly June Daly Watkins/Margaret Thatcher habitus.

I’ve digressed. Because this, ‘mental health’, was only meant to be an example of the broader style, or fashion, of thinking and talking, in which we are training ourselves. The technocratic rationality. At times is becomes visible for all – the anti vax debate is a particularly current example. On the one hand, the simple, modernist and muscular public health logic dictates the best outcome for the most people. On the other, a supreme adherence to individualism, fostered by what is now 30 years of neoliberalism, and cosseted by the rude good health guaranteed by previous public health measures based on the aggregated self, now illustrates the extent to which people grapple with the invisibility of government and their own (in)significance.

It feels clumsy to lump this way of thinking into BN (Before Neoliberalism) and after, but it is easy to delineate some key differences, through the prism of public health. We imagine the state is invisible, imagine our lives as governed by our own hard work and good fortune. Of course, this is sheer folly. The average Filipino works just as hard, if not harder, than the average Australian. Our Australian cards sit on the top of the economic deck because of our position in the ‘first world’, or ‘global north’. These benefits are almost entirely due to our government’s ability to consolidate influence within the global financial markets, either to create wealth from wealth, or to capitalise on wealth we ‘produce’ (commodities). At no point is there a direct linear relationship in which we can compare the output of an Indian, Filipino or Nepalese worker and an Australian in the same position.

I’m not going to get into a long-winded account of global currency markets, but it’s enough to say that our government’s role in our welfare and wellbeing is mostly ‘international’ rather than domestic. And yet it is the domestic politics with which we are the most familiar. This is how our governance is presented to us. Hot Mess Gladys and the endless handwringing over the intergenerational inequities in the housing market.

Public health is also invisible, unless there’s a crisis. Our wellbeing, the security of our nation in terms of ‘burden of disease’ is only relevant in broad terms.

I remember, many years ago, reading about risk and public health, from Nikolas Rose, who, ironically, is a biologist. What occurs (and this is because I can’t recall if it’s his idea, or perhaps my own that was generated through interaction with his work – suspect the former) is that risk helps us to imagine ourselves in the aggregate – it is a tool through which we might be controlled. Talking about our bodies through a prism of risk is something Foucault got hot and bothered about too. We can think of ourselves as entities disseminated through multiple strategies of risk. We’re all familiar with this way of talking and thinking about ourselves.

‘Smokers have a 50% chance of dying from a smoking related illness’

In this way, we might imagine ourselves as a collective, constantly shifting the levels on the risk amplifier we share with everyone else. Certainly, this was an element of neoliberalism – the utilitarian model applied to bodies as a means to control and moderate them, and to perfectly integrate them within a model of ‘productivity’.

And this is where fashion comes in. Because I am now old enough to recognise when this went out of favour, with the rise of identity politics. It happened with fatness. Partly, this was to do with over-reach. The model was overfitted. Risk was attributed everywhere, to everyone. The model got lazy. I remember the first debunking of the ‘Obesity Epidemic‘. Supposedly, obesity was causing high rates of diabetes and other poorly defined problems. The pendulum swung back, people began to question lazy data science. And, most importantly, there was a growing focus on the social consequences of ‘epidemics’. Who is affected and why? Who gets categorised, and what does that mean for them? What are the implications of being labelled fat?

We witnessed a shift in thinking, away from the rational, bio-deterministic models of social control, partly due to sloppy science, and partly due to the rise of the individual. Identity emerged; we began to hear terms like ‘fat shaming’ and the reclamation of physical attributes as identity (reclaiming the term ‘fat’ for instance). This is an interesting shift, a revocation and refusal of the bio medical model that sees humans as barely functioning meat-sacks on the fritz.

And then, we can trace the rise of the ‘victim’ narrative, salvation through identity. The rise of the virtuous disability, as yet another way to claim power.

Underneath it all, to me, these modes of thinking all retain one thing in common; they serve the same power that they always did.

That’s enough crapping on for one morning.

Addendum, By the way, I note that Nikolas Rose has shifted his interests to the ‘psy-disciplines’ and is, unsurprisingly, friendly with Foucault.

Thatcher, Reagan and a little country in the Pacific

I’ve been watching The Crown. I was enjoying it for all the reasons I should – the opulence, the soap opera melodramas, the depictions of the politics of Britain in the post war period. Thatcher’s Britain came as a kick in the guts.

I think this Scottish woman’s eulogy for Mrs Thatcher sums it up nicely;

I am a child of the 80s. My first memories are of thin leather jackets, bad perms and cigarettes. Thatcher’s Britain was not too far removed, in terms of ‘look’ from New Zealand at the time – lots of shambling poverty, cups of tea and unemployment. Thatcher renovated the British economy from top to bottom (as she put it). Basically, as Britain’s colonial power declined, and with it, the money extracted from milking ‘real’ resources in its overseas territories, the country was increasingly ‘domesticated’. That is, reliant on making things within Britain. This wouldn’t be such a problem, if Britain had kept up its technological dominance, but it hadn’t, lulled, as many before it, into a false sense of security provided by a healthy stream of income from its resources obtained overseas.

Thatcher knew this. Britain was becoming less competitive and was suffering economically for it. Thatcher’s Britain aimed to shift the very structure of the economy to emphasise the one thing in which Britain still retained supremacy – a hub for financial trading. The City (of London) drew in enormous wealth for Britain. Thatcher decided to hitch the country’s fortunes to this horse, and, at the same time, embark on a radical monetarist inspired restructure of the welfare state. This was what we now refer to as neoliberalism. ‘The Washington Consensus’ and Britain’s structural adjustment signalled an enormous shift in the basis of the economy. I’m not going to summarise the details here, as many have done a far better job of that than I. However, what I think The Crown gets right is the cultural oeuvre of neoliberalism, Thatcher’s words piped into the existence of its downtrodden, penurious protagonists as they stand in line waiting to be ritually humiliated at the dole office, or in their shabby council flats.

Neoliberalism presented an economic idea as a cultural one – the idea that the economy and society were one thing, and that the individual was a discrete, atomised actor, completely in control of his or her own destiny, regardless of one’s circumstances. Success or failure was based purely on personal, individual gumption and hard work. Society, according to Thatcher, ‘did not exist’. It’s worth noting that all this individualism did not extend to taxes, which were still collected by the state.

Citizens were endlessly re-educated into this new way of thinking, the language of individualism. It was a mean-spirited thing that viewed all the workings of society – housing, healthcare, education – as economic products rather than social goods. There was no longer any ‘social’. Everything was privatised, speculated on, governed by the ‘invisible hand’ of economic rationalism.

The impact, of course, was to reduce transfer payments from the top of the economy to the bottom, thus concentrating wealth upwards. The rich got a lot richer.

New Zealand, with its dour, pinch-faced Scottish Protestant-Calvinist tut-tutted Thatcher for her gentle touch. In 1984, faced with a similar ‘traditional’ economy in decline, New Zealand embarked on a massive neoliberal experiment, known today, in the fine Kiwi tradition of austerity in naming, as The New Zealand Experiment. This was an extreme version of neoliberalism, carried out even more radically than in Britain. The country floated the dollar and embarked on a massive overhaul of the public sector. Unemployment shot up, poverty flourished, homelessness and social alienation became entrenched by the early 90s.

The results, of course, were devastating for ordinary people.

I think what’s most striking to me, having mostly grown up during this period, is that this represented a new way of thinking about ourselves as political, social and economic beings. It seeped into the way we thought about ourselves. For instance, in the 90s in NZ there was an incredibly strong stigma attached to being ‘unproductive’. Neoliberalism had unleashed an extant cruelty that fostered hatred amongst friends and neighbours. Using terms like ‘working class’ or, ‘benefit’ was openly sneered at. Working full time was the only way to be fully human, and in my opinion, this element of neoliberalism remains. For women, having a child was judged harshly and women should ‘get back out there’ as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, the economic arrangements of the day had the harshest judgements for women. My mother, for instance, was a ‘solo mother’ *gasp* after her husband left her. She struggled to get work and eventually, through friends, got a full time position as a telephonist (yes, in one of those phone offices with the long cord and plug thingos). Her relief was enormous as it meant she could pay a mortgage on the small house she’d managed to buy (after being refused several times by the ANZ bank because she didn’t have a husband on the paperwork.

The problem, of course, was that she had two children, which was somewhat incompatible with working full time, in the age of zero childcare. We attended every single day of school, no matter our condition. She simply had no choice otherwise. Mum had 5 days of sick leave per year, and the fact that I remember this from the age of 5 is testament to how it dominated our lives. Mum had an illness that eventually required an operation and she rationed out those sick days like gold.

In the afternoons I went to a Barnardos home and my brother went to a neighbour who had other children his age. We collected food boxes (in another woman’s car) from what Mum called ‘the vege co-op’ but I now realise was a food bank. I remember sitting cross legged in the back of an HQ stationwagon with several other kids, all of us woozy with the petrol fumes, with next to boxes of food as the car made its way around the neighbourhood. The irony is, of course, that we weren’t even considered particularly poor. I remember my Dad picking us up for a visit and discovering that Mum hadn’t packed us any clothes and he took us into Wellington city, at night, and bought us new clothes. I got a pair of jeans and a jumper. Until that point all my clothes came from my cousin Glen, who was the only cousin bigger than me. I wore boys’ clothes for my entire childhood, including Y front undies. Shoes were optional.

Unless you lived in a household with a full time employed husband, you were fucked. There were plenty of people in our situation.

New Zealand prior to 1984 wasn’t exactly rolling in cash either – there was a strict division between rural and urban kiwis, and money was almost hermetically sealed amongst those in the farming sector. Liberalisation and the removal of tariffs knocked that on the head.

I think what’s interesting to me is that Neoliberalism, for many New Zealanders under the age of 40, is just a given. It was presented as an incontrovertible set of natural laws that would govern the fortunes of the country and enable success. It tapped into New Zealanders’ Calvinist leanings, their inherent distrust of their neighbours as bludgers and leaners, their cruel racism.

There was no ‘citizenry’, no longer any sense of social contract or licence. All there was was the cut and thrust of economic primacy and success. The idea that government should support, foster, regulate, ameliorate, prime or undergird economic activity was an anathema. The government should not ‘pick winners’. Of course, this was because the winners were picking themselves. No one laughed longer than I did when New Zealanders chose John Key as their Prime Minister, a man who had colluded in the fevered currency speculation following the floating of the NZ dollar that almost bankrupted the entire country, overnight.

From https://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/249633/Who-is-John-Key

So suppose what I want to flag is something hopeful. Neoliberalism has, as predicted, has not guaranteed the stable economic success it promised. It was brought increased inequality and poverty. But, and this is a big but, I am now old enough to recognise changes. People are increasingly seeing it for what it was and is. They’re aware now, especially in the wake of massive social spending following the GFC and more lately, the pandemic, the role of strong governments that are integrated into the economy in a more traditional Keynesian, interventionist way. There are arguments about what this means economically, but what’s changed is an awareness of the separation of the economy and society, and that one must serve the other. As I live in Australia I increasingly witness the political consensus coalesce on what we might recognise as something like ordo-liberalism, rather than neoliberalism. It’s clear that there’s no point in simply working very hard to tip money into the top end of a FIRE economy (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate).

I’m just dribbling on now, but part of my 2021 resolution was to write more, and reflect more through writing, and so now I’m doing just that.

(I’ve written about The NZ Experiment before – here)

And the next thing….

FACEBOOK TV

Yes, it’s a thing. A thing where Facebook makes videos about science and posts them on Facebook. Yay! Science! By Facebook! It’ll be great!

Today’s vid told me that memories are inherited in your DNA because your parents DNA changes in response to different environmental stimuli. There was even a mouse experiment that proved it! OMG this totally explains why I get, like, really panicky in the presence of, like, books. Because my Mum was once given a series of electric shocks every time she opened a book!

I don’t even need to do any research at all to spot the first problem; – epigenetic transmission of behaviours is about methylation. It does not change the DNA. If it did I’d be a fucking legend cricket player who could successfully load a dishwasher.

Actually, the mouse experiment is kind of interesting. There have been many experiments and much research into methylation and epigenetics, but that mouse experiment stands out because of one thing; the results were completely unlikely. This article pulls the experiments apart in a reasonably straightforward way that I’d probably understand in its entirety if I wasn’t such a fabulous cricketer;

An article reporting statistical evidence for epigenetic transfer of learned behavior has important implications, if true. With random sampling, real effects do not always result in rejection of the null hypothesis, but the reported experiments were uniformly successful. Such an outcome is expected to occur with a probability of 0.004.

0.004. That’s pretty small odds. The article basically takes a series of guesses as to how the reported results were so amazingly coincidentally completely in line with the researchers’ hypothesis, but what it makes clear is how research design is often quite shonky. Obviously drug companies edit out their failures but I was a bit surprised to read this article detailing all the ways in which people bugger it up in other fields too,

How could the findings of Dias and Ressler (2014) have been so positive with such low odds of success? Perhaps there were unreported experiments that did not agree with the theoretical claims; perhaps the experiments were run in a way that improperly inflated the success and type I error rates, which would render the statistical inferences invalid. Researchers can unintentionally introduce these problems with seemingly minor choices in data collection, data analysis, and result interpretation. Regardless of the reasons, too much success undermines reader confidence that the experimental results represent reality. Even if some of the effects prove to be real, the findings reported in Dias and Ressler (2014) likely overestimate the effect magnitudes because unreported unsuccessful outcomes usually indicate a smaller effect than reported successful outcomes.

Next stop; chaos theory, closed loop control systems and my fucking car.

 

Here we go….

I’ve spent the better part of a couple of weeks developing a rudimentary knowledge of turbo diesels into a fine grained, forensic understanding of every fucking system that could ever shit itself. Don’t get me started….

Aside from turbo diesels, a few other ridiculous ideas have caught my way; one of which is the furore over old Pakehas receiving an small payment to help them with their winter power bill.

 See where the bulges sit above? European New Zealanders are older and thus far more likely to own their own homes (and, increasingly, the homes of others as property investors). Europeans far outpace all other ethnic groups when it comes to home ownership, being around twice as likely to own their home as Māori, and more again than Pasifika.

It’s fine to suggest that rich people shouldn’t really receive more money. This isn’t what the article is saying. It says; Pakeha New Zealanders are asset rich and live on pensions (which I think is about 20 grand per annum). Apparently these baby boomers should take out reverse mortgages in order to supplement their pensions. This seems wrong to me somehow. Yes, these people are cash-poor. Yes, they struggle to pay the power bill. Yes, they own their own homes. All that would happen is that their children would have less capital passed on to them when they die. Or, not mentioned in the article, that money might get spent on medical treatment and retirement homes….Unless and until someone addresses the complete fucking rort that is the retirement industry in NZ it will remain hard to make an argument that kids are going to inherit much at all. But let’s leave that aside for a moment.

Say those kids DO inherit something. What will they spend this largesse upon? Paying their enormous fucking student loans and outrageous mortgages. They might go to the dentist.

It’s all very well to portray Baby Boomers as living high on the hog but you have to look at a broader range of implications when you talk about making pensioners get reverse mortgages. It’s not just a simple case of taking one thing (reverse mortgages for asset rich/cash poor) and discussing it in terms of one implication (inheritance and intergenerational wealth). There are simply too many other factors in play. This is called ‘modelling’. It’s the kind of thing that dog whistling journos don’t do much of.

They prefer to make arguments on the basis of simpler concepts. Concepts everyone can understand. Like racism. Apparently Pakeha people are all home owners and that’s not fair. No-one else is a home owner! There’s even a nice piccy in the article to show you how baby boomers are all pakeha

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Of course, the more observant amongst you will notice that it is age, rather than ethnicity, that is the variable of interest here. Young people don’t buy houses. And young New Zealanders aren’t Pakeha. Is the cure for racist housing inequality to be older?

So that’s one thing……

 

The true cost of books

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This (old) article from the Huffington Post popped up on my facebook feed yesterday. It asks – what’s the true cost of cheaper books?

It got me thinking.

I’ve never written a book in anger but I’ve self published two of them for fun. I ‘make’ about $6 from each one sold (at the bookshop).

Although the writing bit happens relatively quickly (for me), each of my books took at least a hundred hours of editing. The price doesn’t begin to reflect the cost.

Shameless sycophants tell me that they very much enjoy my books. This response is nice, lovely, in fact, given that I write such rude stuff. But it’s perhaps not surprising, given the amount of time that went into producing them. You can’t polish a turd, but if you spend a hundred hours trying it’ll at least take on a high shine. 

And yet pointing this out is like driving a fork into an untouched shibboleth. To talk about ‘my practice’ as ‘actually practicing a lot’ seems to denigrate the idea of artists as divining some kind of rare, unfathomable genius. Real genius doesn’t take time or practice. It’s genius! 

I blame the visual arts. The visual arts celebrates the artistic genius – the idea that an artist can whip out to the washhouse and churn out a masterpiece between goon bags. Perhaps this reflects my recent lap through the hallowed Boyd studio at Bundanon. In the artist’s studio we listened to an eager volunteer deliver a rattle-gun analysis of the huge paintings propped up around us. They all looked to have been painted in a tearing hurry to me.

The idea that a ten minute painting might look like little more than a twelve minute painting in good light is anathematic in the world of visual arts. Painters routinely expect to be paid thousands of dollars for work that took a few hours, or perhaps a couple of days. Sure, they might claim that this price reflects years spent ‘engaging the their practice’ – basically, honing their skill, but writers do this too.

Unlike painters, writers cannot rely on the ‘immediacy of the message’. You can’t stand in front of a book for two minutes and claim to know what it’s about. In fact, it needs to be extremely well written for readers to comprehend it at all. You can’t just chuck all the words onto the page and give the audience the finger – that’s called experimental poetry. Experimental poetry is the literary equivalent of modern art, except it looks better under behind the washing machine than above the fireplace.

Or perhaps the immediacy of the message is the key to understanding why visual art expects to be reimbursed for its quick-and-dirty ‘genius’. Perhaps we value it more because you can instantly judge the work. A book, on the other hand, requires commitment. You can’t know anything about it until you’ve read a few pages (and you can’t claim to understand it just by standing in front of it like a winsome ingenue either). Really, what we’re really paying for is our own lack of commitment as viewers.

Something to think about maybe…

My general thought is that writing and literature is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Writing follows the same patterns of economic history as everything else. The late 20th Century democratised the production of literature. For the first time, poor people were both educated and could sustain themselves long enough to pen their epistle. Those days are now drawing to a close. We’re heading back to the time of self-sponsored drivel that represents the cushy upper classes, where we will once again be forced to choose between the florrid insights of upper class toffs and (televised) penny dreadfuls.

Bring it on.

Fuck off with your ankle bracelet

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One week ago, without even having to inconvenience myself by robbing a petrol station or raping someone with a broom handle, I was issued with an ankle bracelet.

Yep, my workplace was participating in a corporate ‘wellbeing challenge’. Staff were organised into teams and pedometers were handed out.

All you have to do is measure how many steps you take in a day!

Apparently, this is because our employer is dedicated to staff wellbeing;

‘For those of you lucky enough to have your zero hours contracts renewed for another six months, we really care about your personal wellbeing! Look! There’s even a video! And hell – o! It’s funky!’

In the olden days, by which I mean the period immediately preceding the age characterised by endless moaning about how millennials are too lazy and entitled to commit suicide already, working for a living defined you as a lifter, rather than a leaner. Lifters were masters of their own destiny, less scrutinised than those languishing in the nationalised cost of labour market elasticity.

Where was I? Ah yes, work makes free. It’s got a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?

Male, white collar workers could drink till it came out their ears, drive badly and eat Big Macs off the arses off as many Brazilian models as they liked (I fondly imagine this is what they were up to anyway), with little oversight. Women, of course, could work as much as they liked but were still subject to open scrutiny. Who is paying the price for your selfish obsession with paying the bills, bitch? (At least some things never change).

However, by and large, working for a living placed you under less scrutiny than being on welfare. Or at least that what’s my ankle bracelet told me to say. Because I’m not being ‘scrutinised’. I’m simply being trained in methods so I can scrutinise myself.

To be sure, the pedometer is not forcing my behaviour, it’s not making me walk around the suburb in my slippers in the dark, counting each step as I go. No, that’s not how this shit works. Social control must be subtle. It must appear sensible and self evident. It must legitimise itself. You must want to do it.

My ankle bracelet encourages me to think about my body, my self, in a particular way. For instance, it enables me to think of all the walking I do as discrete parcels of exercise. this fits in nicely with the idea of the compartmentalised self, where activities such as ‘walking’ are realised as both a noun and a verb.

Walking can be slotted into a rubric of self-care and public health. It helps me to work on my body, where my body is a commodity that I produce myself, with the help of other products of course. The pedometer strings together a strategy of the body, a way of thinking about my output as compartmentalised. It also gets me used to the idea of complete monitoring.

The pedometer is accompanied by helpful tidbits of information;

‘Did you know that you actually do exercise in your ordinary life, just by walking around?’

Here it connects the very act of moving from the bed to the bathroom, for instance, with a regime of order that is intrinsically connected to the larger structures in your life – a seamlessly integrated alliance of work and public health,

‘Woah. You mean just by walking around I’m getting exercise? Every step I take actually counts? I’m totally going to start snorting coke off the downstairs toilet cistern from now on!’ (FYI – this type of response elicits the ‘you are not a team player’ derisory sigh in the tea room, and a suggestion that perhaps I am not a Model Employee).

Right up until the moment it went into the ocean, the little plastic pedometer was educating me in the right way to think about my body, how to regulate myself. This is what Foucault would call governmentality – the conduct of conduct.

“Governmentalities are both mentalities and technologies, both ways of thinking and tools for intervening, and it is important to keep in view the irreducibility of one to the other” (Miller and Rose 2008:20)

I like this because it makes me think about Actor Network Theory. I like the conceptual slipperiness of ANT, the idea that there are connections between things, networks, ideas and what Papuans might call Kastom. I like that it’s a way of finding traces of power, but it’s not absolute. Power is in flux, constantly, and the objects things and networks all shift in relation to one another, sometimes becoming one another. Foucault is often presented as more fixed, when in fact I think his work is more like ANT. The panoptican, for instance, is presented as a metaphor – here is a building that represents a way that people can think about themselves in relation to the control of the state. Well, no, the panopticon is more than a representation or a metaphor. Foucault’s genealogies work more like fashions of thought, for me anyway.

The pedometer, for instance, makes me think of myself as a knowable, homogenised commodity. All the walking you do is rendered the same, whether it’s getting up to a baby in the middle of the night or snorting coke off the downstairs loo. Walking is an essential human activity (for most people). It’s essentiality is a wonderful thing to give you a sense of control over. The pedometer co-opts walking into a regime of order and homogeneity. It’s the McDonaldisation of your steps! Excuse me, Kate Tempest, I believe I’m being noisy now….is this thing on…?

OK, McDonaldisation might be a bit clunky.

But perhaps we can think of walking as connected to exercise. Everything is now exercise. And what is ‘exercise’? It’s moral, self-management in the pursuit of a commodity-body, where the emphasis is on the through-put of the images of self, rather than the self itself.

The idea that walking at work can be exercise is something interesting too – it joins the world of the personal and labour….Hey, you’re actually performing a first world leisure activity (exercise) while you’re working! WIN! You should be thinking of your job as a vocation, because that’s how winners think about work. Yeah, think of yourself as both producer and product, where work is something that produces you. The real you. The one that feels gipped when you have to ‘give up’ work to look after kids.

Exercise is also connected to risk. We’re all familiar with this message – if you don’t exercise you’re volunteering yourself for a cascade of neo-liberal reversals. You’ve brought this on yourself. Fatty.

Risk is an aggregation of destinies, in this way I am connected to everyone else. This gives me both more control (I must get off my arse immediately so I don’t end up with diabetes) and less control (this aggregation of information, called risk, knows more about me and my life chances than I do myself). What it does do is homogenise me, and make me more controllable. I’m a standardised metric. The only purchase I have on risk is through the chirpy, pastellised infographics on the train station walls (as long as the message is expressed in two moronic words or less).

Get Active! Just Quit! Fuck off!

So, risk does two things –

One: it encourages me to think about myself as part of a polity, as connected to everyone else. Moreover, it makes me think I have a particular responsibility to mobilise and care for my body in a morally acceptable way.

Two: There is something called ‘risk’ which knows more about my life chances than I can know, but is ‘good for me’. It also exists within the realm of professionals – biostatisticians, psychologists, public health experts. I should trust their judgement and wisdom.

I must learn to be comfortable with acquiescing my sense of personal control. The pedometer can help with that. It gives me a sense of ‘self-care’ and primes me for being controlled.

If I feel uncomfortable with this then it’s because I’m not sufficiently fluent in these techniques of the self. This is when Foucault is most visible – when everyone else in the tea room thinks the ‘steps project’ is a ‘bit of fun’ and ‘enters into the spirit of the thing’ and I feel like I’m on page 67 of 1984. Sure, there are ways of getting around this – loudly but casually referring to it as the ‘Pedo Challenge’ certainly makes for good tea room banter – but generally I think there’s no way out.

I’ve snorted way less coke off the downstairs loo since I got rid of the pedometer though.

 

 

 

 

 

Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 50s

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Rothko. Modernism. I like it.

Who’s up for some intellectual whiplash this morning?

Right. Today’s 500 words is about sociology. Or maybe it’s cultural studies, I’m not really sure. Let’s call it a yard sale of consciousness.

I have a friend with a PhD in English literature. She and I both read a lot of what might be called Cultural Studies. I come at it from Anthropology/Sociology, she comes at it from English Lit. We meet at the French woodchipper. That is, many of the ‘cultural studies’ theorists come from the French existential tradition.

For me cultural studies is about the social imagination of space and place. I’m thinking of theorists LeFebvre and John Law in particular. Yes, they are quite different but they best sum up my previous approaches to thinking about how the humans imagine themselves as constituted. They dovetail nicely with ideas about late capitalism and materialism (in the Marxist sense – c.f Baudrilliard) and are backgrounded by the semiotics of the usual suspects, Lacanian/Saussurian deconstruction of linguistic modernism from dudes like Levi-Strauss. If you didn’t get anything in this paragraph ignore it. It’s an approach as legitimate as any other.

Essentially, this process follows the same process as classical mechanics versus quantum physics – imagine if everything you thought you knew was wrong, because your brain can only think about it in one way. You’d keep trying to understand the new observations through the old brain. But what if, by studying the old brain, we came to develop the imagination to interpret new ideas, or even old ideas, in new ways.

In physics it works – we move from reductionism to probability. In cultural studies, it’s fashionable bullshit. And it’s people like me who’re to blame.

I made a very nice life for myself, for quite some time, by being good at this stuff. It inherently made sense to me and, as I entered post grad, I found myself within an ever diminishing group of people who were conversant in these ideas. You’ll note I used the word ‘conversant’ rather than ‘cogniscient’. I’m not sure we all understood these theorists in the same way, but their ambiguity is precisely their strength – it serves as a springboard for extending the imagination; (The lazy tutor’s refrain) Well, what do you think it means? Out of this questions might emerge our own revelations that enable us to think about social and cultural life in new ways. It did for me.

That’s the good.

The bad, of course, is that you now have a small group of people who’re flailing about in an increasingly abstruse, self-referential miasma of ‘ideas’. There is a danger that this miasma becomes an idiom sui generis – the medium becomes the message, as it were. Everyone’s talking in the right way, but no-one’s listening to the content. And if they are, they’re not understanding it, because often the speakers aren’t articulating their ideas well enough. A hierarchy emerges, premised purely on clarity or explanatory force – what mathematicians might call beauty.

Like some forms of ‘speculative’ maths, there is no longer a clear connection with an intuitive sense of logic, you begin judging the explanations on how well they cohere with the form of previous explanations. Are they internally consistent?

And boom, we’re back at the Round Window with Levi-Strauss. We are interpreting things through the most comfortable, familiar intellectual rubric we have, and layering our own ambitions over the top. Rock stars emerge and wall-eyed academics flock to them like bespectacled tweenies on a slushie high. I was one of them.

We do this all the time, with everything from art to science. In some fields it’s laughably transparent – modern literature comes to mind. Writers produce ‘speculative’ or ‘experimental’ works that are little more than minuscule, strategic moves intended exclusively for their peers and no-one else. Incidentally, you can always tell when this is happening because groupies emerge – they’re the litmus test for fashionable obscurity (or what Bourdieu would call cultural capital). Oh my God, I love Experimental Ethiopian Space Jazz from the 1950s! It really speaks to me (like a washing machine tumbling down a cliff). Unlike the ‘theorists’ described above who are actively engaged in thinking, even if it’s futile, the groupies don’t think anything at all. What they do recognise, however, is naked hierarchy and its association with class. They’re happy to participate on these grounds alone.

This is ‘The Academy’.

I’m not suggesting there is no value in engaging with these ideas, I just think it’s good to realise where their value ends. If one is going to engage with society, and use theory as an aid, then it must be ‘humanistic’ – it must bloody help. Otherwise it’s little more than onanistic flex.

I came to this realisation after reading ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun‘ by Peter Godwin. It describes the liberation of Zimbabwe in the 1970s. I’m fascinated by how regimes rise and fall. How is it that ordinary people find themselves ardent supporters of nutty ideas? Lazy fascism? How do we come to shuffle people into gas chambers or gulags?

These people are all us.

As a consequence, I’ve been revisiting more ‘trad’ social theorists – Foucault and some of the newer incarnations of governmentality. As society and public discourse becomes ever more exotically farcical, it is to these ideas I find power and resistance. Yes, we recognise the obvious precursors to a catastrophic social shit-storm (galloping hyper-inflation, youth unemployment etc.,.) but it does not explain why some countries/nations fall into the pit of fascism, mass murder or groupthink while others don’t.

Foucault looks at regimes of power that train us how to think about ourselves. He identifies them and speculates on their implications. We don’t become fascists or adherents of despotic lunatics overnight. We must first train ourselves to think about our individuality in particular ways. Controlling the terms of this training is where the real power lies.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.

(For an old but good intro into some of these ideas see; Foucault, M (1982) ‘The Subject and Power’ Critical Inquiry Volume 8, Number 4 Summer, 1982.)

 

 

Bring on the writer’s block!

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Ooo, what’s in here? Wait a minute, who gives a fuck?

I’ve given up writing. Blogging, publishing books, articles on Medium. The lot.

It’s my New Year’s resolution. I used to write about everything from yoga to mining, medicine to child abuse. There were devastating insights into the relationship between gambling and writing competitions, and also teddies I wrote a lot about both New Zealand and Australia. I’ve realised, however, that the internet has reached saturation. Everyone can write. And now, everyone does. There’s no need for me to contribute to it.

I enjoy writing, editing less so. And yet, I seemed to spend more time editing my work than producing it. In fact, the biggest hurdle to writing was the thought of editing it later.

I started this blog in 2004. Initially, I never edited a bloody thing. The readership was high, and I was re-published fairly frequently, such was the twitching churn of internetty politics and culture. So, I started editing my work. Not a lot, just a once-over-lightly for clarity.

Mostly I blogged as a way of working through a set of thoughts or issues. Sometimes I’d revisit them, researching facts or writing them up as an article to be as widely ignored as the original blog post. I thought that there was value in writing as a discipline, a way of organising my thoughts, making a coherent argument, exploring an issue.

Shock twist! There isn’t.

So, it’s with a sense of relief that I abandon writing. I’ve published a couple of books, some short stories and recorded the odd thing for the ABC. It’s been a good run.

I’ll probably still scribble down the odd thing from time to time. And it’s likely I’ll post some garbled shit on this blog occasionally too, but the half-finished manuscripts, articles and research are all headed for the bin. After all, if no-one reads your work then you’re just writing a diary. And who wants to read that?

 

 

Again

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No no, don’t get up.

It’s hovering around 40c again. I’ve got something to say about America, but I can’t make it come out, so this more of a stream of consciousness. If only it was enough to keep my zucchinis alive. But they’re foreign too, so it’s curtains for them!

What? She’s gone mad. It’s the heat.

I’m reading Paul Theroux, specifically, the Patagonian Express. Published in 1979 it’s a bloody interesting insight into the American expansionism of the era. Take, for instance, Theroux’s visit to Panama. The Panama canal zone, in case you didn’t know, was more or less a US colony. The deal was; we Americans will run the canal, the ex-Columbians and Panamanians can just kind of hang out and NOT BE COMMUNISTS.

But you see in the face of rapacious extraction and the looming control of international predatory lenders, South Americans in general started to get the feeling that they were being generally destabilised in order for the US to continue its interests. They also had quaint ideas about running their own countries. Sovereignty means not everyone gets a crack at doing a shit job.

What’s particularly interesting is that Theroux gives an everyday account of Panama, including discussions about Panama’s leader, Omar Torrijos. He wasn’t a communist, he was more like what we would today recognise as a centrist – he believed in social welfare and education. Most importantly, however, he represented the majority of people in Panama, instead of the small cabal of American interests.

Theroux left Panama, and I wondered how the transition panned out. So I looked it up. Torrijos died in a plane crash. And Noriega took over. You see I remember Noriega (child of the 80s) but not Torrijos. So that was interesting to me.

Now, coming back to 2017….because I live in a left wing bubble, I’m perpetually surrounded by earnest social media posts that sound something like this;

I’m compelled to speak up with love and respect about the harms that this blah blah has done and this is not the America I know and love, the place that welcomes everyone and we love everyone and this is a time for strength not division etc., etc.,

It’s worth remembering that this isn’t the America that many non-Americans know. They know a posturing, illiberal super-power, one that is admired and feared, exploited for its economy and reviled for the interventionism that feeds it. In short, there are a lot of people in the world who have a mixed view of the US. It’s not the one that pops up underneath an artfully composed flat-lay on instagram.

Theroux talked frankly about Americans lack of awareness of their place in the world and the shenanigans carried out by their government. I think this is perhaps more true now than it was in 1979. The political sphere seems entirely domestic. Americans are protesting about American women’s rights, American muslim’s rights, American LGBT rights, African American rights, American workers rights. And well they should. I’m just surprised at the domestic focus I suppose…

Maybe I’m must engaging in that thing where I claim to be more righteous than everyone else, because I’ve got some interest in global history. But I don’t think this is it. I think politics is a cultural thing, and I generally think most people want to do what they think is the right thing to do. It’s the juxtaposition between the ‘soft’ domestic politics and the ‘hard’ bundling people into diplomatic bags politics that intrigues me.

See, I told you this wouldn’t make a lot of sense. See what you can do in 40 degree heat.