Archive | September, 2010


30 Sep

Tariq Ali’s coming to town, the posters are everywhere. He’s a star, there are professionally designed, printed flyers alongside the usual Trot neo-constructivist photocopies. The theme is Obama, change we can believe in? Well we can believe in change but if you think voting changes anything except the day’s government you’re dreamin’.

Ah the Dream….


The Dream. The Grand March Forward as Milan Kundera correctly categorized it. Everyone except conservatives believes in the Grand March. There’s only arguments about which road to take. These can be vicious:


That’s Russia, not Germany. Ali is married to the editor of the New Left Review, His writing has long had a sizable market unlike mine at this point. His leftist pedigree is impeccable, legendary. Just look at the first photo: how brave, how noble and free they are: the Prince of Lahore and the impeccably Anglopatrician thespian, standing together. Against the Man.


I can’t remember ever reading Ali’s books. I probably read something, I’ve done his bits in The Guardian. I remember an inevitable year of Chomsky and Said. Becoming ‘aware’ as they say. Aware of what? That the Empire didn’t go away, that it just changed hands and methodology? Well d’uh. Any John Le Carré novel can tell you that. It’s Grade 11 Modern History, or used to be. People privileged by Empire wander around their short lifespans paying strict attention to what they want oblivious to the lives of those that make all the stuff they buy. Who’d a thought.

Mr Ali says ‘We live, after all, in a world where illusions are sacred and truth profane’ as if it’s some fresh evil aloose upon the world. The truth is we have always done so, we begin the process of lying to ourselves very early. We can’t hack the truth. We’re not strong enough. I tend to agree with the Trot picture of the world. I’ve seen some of these places and I pay attention to the regular Imperial warfare waged by America and its allies. I know that the economic prosperity of the West is not simply a matter of the wages of a free markets and liberal democratic governance. That the freedom to trade is granted but the freedom not to trade is not.

Harsh fact of the world: Democracies breed imperial adventurism, it’s true. The great avatar of Greek democracy Pericles gave a famous speech at funeral once upon a time. This speech is a classic piece of rhetoric that outlines the virtues of democratic governance with its open culture and prosperity based on the freedom to trade. Any student of politics unfamiliar with it is a victim of inadequate curriculum. It’s well known in the US Establishment graduate schools. What’s less discussed is that Pericles gave the speech to garner support for a war. This war was not a simple struggle between Athenian liberty and Spartan authoritarianism. It was a struggle for resources. A struggle by Athens to maintain its empire, its hegemony over trade routes and access to the natural resources that labour converts to products that can be sold.

In a democracy the government is compelled to listen to its citizens and those citizens are mostly concerned with their material well-being. Unfortunately, then as now, monkeys were greedy. Making ends meet is a concept relative to the lifestyle to which one is accustomed. Democracies tend to be wealthy because the property rights that help guarantee them mean that people are free to trade and this always produces riches. But fortune still goes up and down and people, walk-of-life regardless, are not known to accept the down-slope gracefully.

In 1980 Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan went head-to-head in a contest to run the richest and more powerful state the world has yet known. Carter was mired in humiliation and strife. Vietnam, Watergate and years of economic sluggishness had tarnished the Yankee shine on life. In Iran a revolution against the ruling Shah had seen the US embassy staff taken hostage. The cruel, plutocratic Shah having been instituted decades before by the CIA because the Iranians had decided to elect the wrong government. The new Iranian government was eager to turn the screws on America hard.

Domestically, Americans were now dependent on Arabian oil. According to the laws of realpolitik Carter revoked a clause of an agreement made between the House of Saud and Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 in which the US promised never to occupy territory in Arabia. Without oil America would collapse. What could he do? If Iran interfered with the oil supply, America could crash. Saudi Arabia was, like Iran, ruled by repressive self-indulgent lushes high on the Texas Tea gravy train. Their people suffered, pressed down by the butt of the American arms industry. Another revolution was a possibility. Forces were deployed. And with US assistance Iraq waged bloody warfare against Iran for 8 years. The head of state of Iraq was a US ally, as you probably know, his name was Saddam Hussein. Elsewhere the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the US threw resources into the insurgency. The war that followed would destroy the Soviet Union and create the Taliban. It’s where Usama bin Laden got his ideas.

Carter and Reagan. Carter always saw long term problems. He knew that America’s economy was structurally unsound but he had no real idea why. And he was always personally helpless in the face of fortune. He just wasn’t up to the job. Reagan knew what his people needed, less red tape and more hype. Carter told them the truth: that their schtick was obsolete, that they’d grown too fat on foreign oil, that they needed to tighten their belts. He mixed this with his hippie-era brand of New Liberal Christianity. He didn’t realize the hippie era was over: short hair and ties were back in. Reagan told them their favourite lie: that they were a great nation entitled to the life of hogs in the fathouse forever.

Guess which one they bought? Indeed, illusions are sacred and America is more than a country, it is a holy idea.

I’m sure that the undergrads that crowd into Mr Ali’s speech will scoff at the hypocrisy. They’ll gather in the taverns afterward and plot tabletop revolution, engaging in the arguments over minor theological points traditional since 12th century Paris. Automatically they’ll check their text messages but probably won’t know that these gadgets require capacitors to function, that refined columbite–tantalite is used to manufacture these components.

They might know something about what happens in the (ha ha) Democratic Republic of Congo where the stuff is found. The trucks hired by mining executives, 20 guys on the back strapped with Mikhail Kalashnikov’s toys off to find some troublesome village that’s making a fuss that Nokia employees enjoy free dental whilst their kids have to kick around a soccer ball made of bundled rags. They’ll have read No Logo and’ve absorbed the connections between the Reebok trainers on their feet and Chinese peasants getting paid 20 cents a day to make 100 of ’em. They can all congratulate themselves on their ideology which has ’em all standing aloof from that. But there’s an inconvenient rub here. More than one.

Look at the first photo. The noble crusaders against injustice. Look at the second. That’s what happened in Russia after the Ultimate Crusade Against Injustice. A crusade that Ms Redgrave and Mr Ali are very passionate about. Being followers of Leon Trotsky they believe they can stand aloof from the aftermath. Scrap this democratic capitalism they say. But look at their alternative. Only in a democracy can you slag the government off and get paid for it. If Ali was in Pakistan he might very well be in prison.

The only thing voting changes is the government. Yes. And if you can change the government, if you can fire them, then they must toe a certain line. They aren’t known to cart large slabs of the population off to prison. The government is required to act in your interests. And if those interests mean permanent bases in Saudi Arabia so you can afford to drive the car to work and if that means creating new enemies, well?

We could have a revolution. That works doesn’t it? Oh that’s right, piles of bodies. Damn. We could not buy their mobile phones and stand aloof from the mining industry in Congo. We could grow our own vegetables and stand aloof from the economy all together. The crops might fail. The kids might starve. But it’s for the fight against Evil so I’m sure their mother won’t mind. Or we could get active: form groups, have discussions, organize protests, give lectures, write books and sign them at Borders.

Or instead we could write glib posts on blogs expressing world-weary cynicism. This allows us to evade accusations of lackeyism, justifies our apathy and lets us stand aloof from it all especially if one concludes with ironic self-parody.



29 Sep

In Ian Watson’s “Rooms of Paradise” a biotechnologically reincarnated man awakes and finds himself in a blank room. There’s a door leading to the next room and it takes him a whole day to get thru it. A robot follows him, feeding him. Each day, another room.

If he refuses to go thru it, he finds he awakes in the next room anyway. He spends years like this eventually remembering his dreams. In his dreams he’s living life as he imagined it would be: growing up young again. A boy, a teenager, a young man. But the boy doesn’t remember his past life (except in his dreams perhaps). Without his memories this boy makes the same mistakes, misses the same opportunities. Does he dream again each night of a long succession of blank rooms?

In Neil Gaiman’s The Seasons of Mists another boy returns from Hell which he remembers also as a series of blank rooms. But this time something is following him. Something unknown and deadly, something black. Which Hell is worse? Between fear and nothing what would you take? What a mysterious image: a succession of identical, white-walled rooms. Empty. This is a very modern Hell.

These stories are remembered to me because recently I happened upon a certain book: Site-Specific Art, oh excuse me, site-specific art. The lower case is significant in a way lost on the author one Nick Kaye who held the Chair of Drama University of Manchester for 5 years. He’s a professor. He’s written books on performance and research and postmodernism (whatever that means).

Try and get past the first sentence:

This book is concerned with practices which, in one way or another, articulate exchanges between the work of art and the places in which its meanings are defined.

There’s are places where meanings are defined? Where are they? I believe there was one atop the hill on Collins St but then it moved to Ringwood Plaza. Now it’s a strictly online operation and the money goes to the Caymans. We articulate exchanges says Prof Kaye. Does that mean ‘we talk’?

There aren’t many works of art in the book which concerns Installation Art. Certain installation artists who are, I guess, the author’s mates are spruiked. There’s one that’s some very groovy lego-looking shit but the thing that caught me seems to be Kaye’s own work The Rooms (Oct ’75-Sep ’96). Twelve shows over twelve months each a variation on the same thing: rooms leading off to infinity. The Galleria Christian Stein in Turin put on the show. It’s where he got the idea: infinite identically blank rooms leading off forever.

One such variation stands out as the Italian for ‘son’ is embossed above each door. Kaye gets all mystical here telling us that every “man is the son of the son, of the son, of the son, and bears within himself the father of the father, of the father, of the father”. We get the point. One would think such excessive repetition required a less banal observation?

That was Room #3. And we’re all pretty optimistic that people understood the patrilineal facts of progeneration by New Year’s Eve in 1975. The rooms have some kind of narrative but I suspect that the images are organized to make the project seem like more work and higher craft than it actually took.

Of course before we get this far we need several pull-quotes from the obligatory French Theory God. This time a de Certeau who tells us that “space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization, transformed into a term dependent upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformation caused by successive contexts.” Well that, I’m sure, clears a lot of things up for us all. How, I wonder, does a space get transformed by successive contexts? Are we talking a house boat here? Kaye follows this by telling us that “Space, as a practiced place, admits of unpredictability”. His italics. How is a toilet unpredictable? And how exactly does the successive disposing of human bodily waste bear on this unpredictability? How does a space admit of anything?

It’s all rubbish. The book is sub-titled: “performance, place and documentation” and it is the document I think that is the centrepiece here. The most expressive bit of the book is some kind of kit documenting something, we’re told, is a ‘site-specific Theatre Work’. His capitalization. There’s instruction on how to assemble this document which features a lot of avant graphics and text that makes not much sense. There’s maps, set drawings and photos of performers all a nicely balanced montage that evoke some kind of drama. The document is punctuated by textboxes one of which tells us about ‘the transparency of architecture’ which apparently means that ‘all images are compromised’.

Mysterious sentences that sound like MBA management-speak as cut-up and randomly rearranged by William S Burroughs. How come these sorts of projects seem to exist to be written about in this fashion? Does anyone’s soul actually get touched by them? The retort to this would probably be Foucault’s maxim that the soul is the prison of the body. How many French writers have ridden the gravy train of Anglo-Academia because of this groovy but functionally meaningless riff where they interchange the subject and object of sentences causing every half-baked tenured mediocrity to pull at some straggled, greasy hair and go: mmmmm?

How did the passion of artists so evident at the beginning of the 20th century devolve into something that has all the charm and romance of a flue gas stack with none of the utility? How cold and grey it all is. How Kafkan. All this activity, subsidized by an indifferent citizenry, in aid of producing what seems to be the most exalted art object in the early 21st century art world: the File.


28 Sep

Time was, one obeyed one’s ancestors and were judged by one’s descendants now it’s the reverse.

My first few months of life, so I’ve been told, were spent in a flat above Trafalgar Square. On the fringes of Empire: a proxy war in a puppet state raged and six months after I was born the city swelled for the second time that year with enraged people. The shrill, amplified speeches and chants of the young and self-righteous; the age at which we have realized how bad the world really is but not yet why it’s so tough to be good.

Freud’s theory that what happens in life’s first moment shapes us forever is, I feel, the truth. I don’t remember it of course. In my crib, new to the world, unaware, even of my body. My brain just beginning that sparkling map of self-organized impulses that becomes a mind. Processing vision, processing sound, pleasure and pain. What effect did the megaphone speeches and roaring revolutionary chants have on me?

While I’ve been alive, radicalism has been a parade of facile cultural fringe dwelling. A thousand little People’s Fronts of Judea; a combination Sex Club for Dorks and Little Napoleon training ground. To be sure there are many activists who are sincere and courageous people whether for good or ill. But most of the dots in the crowd-shots on the Murdoch’s front pages (headline screaming Anarchy) will belong to people whose main beef is with their parents. They’re cultural fringe dwellers. Ferris Beuller summed up most of my generation’s attitude to politics: we don’t care too much for politics, politics won’t get you a car. I don’t see that the generation that followed differs from us in this respect. Generation Y, excuse me, Gen Y… belabelled by a sequential letter. How insulting.

Generation rhymes badly with generalization. I remember some book by a couple of older writers who’d written a generational history of America and sought to cash in on the vogue for explaining and defining ‘us’. To boost sales appeal there was feedback commentary printed in the margins from ‘one of us.’ . This was delivered with the glib sarcasm of the misanthorpic coffee-shop slacker that’d become our overnight iconography. They made a big deal that the guy’d emailed his comments in. (Ooh wee new technology). The one thing I remember him saying was that he hated these sorts of books because it put him the same league as some snot-nosed grot he went to kindergarten with.

Nevertheless, these sorts of books had a market during the ’90s. Simultaneously, we bought them and dismissed them. We needed it having been over-shadowed by the legendary baby boomers who’d had the good fortune to be born at a time when youth had all opportunities. We grew up during the rough quarter century of a general downturn. We had all the usual apocalyptic fantasies, buried or bleated about. Our expectations were sullied by what seemed an unstoppable decline. Magically we contemplated this historical context at the start of our careers and the longest boom in history. In actuality, our bad luck was good.

The authors, familiar with the characters of generations past, compared us to that of the American founding fathers. Apparently Jefferson and Washington’s peers were likewise known for their apathy, likewise dismissed in their youth. But approaching middle-age appeared to change into people who aspired to higher virtue and succesfully. That struck me at the time true. Our road would be rocky and unglamourous. I didn’t imagine we would found a great nation. But the idea that we would party ’til 1999 and then wise up? Yeah.

Here I am, no longer concerned about what defines my generation being old enough to know that that’s impossible ’til after it’s over. And it’s not over. Probably not even halfway. I’ve seen my own time’s colonial war and taken part in my own ineffective bit of mass symbolism against it. Each generation features the same spectrum of characters only a little different, like a fingerprint. Generic and individual at once. We have no way of knowing what will happen and therefore nothing we say can fully prepare our children for life. We can only know that – given the patterns of history, of economy, of war and peace – they will have a different life experience to us. We can only know that – given the patterns of love, of work, of kindness and betrayal – they will have the same life experiences as us. Same ocean, different wave.

Gen X is a simulacrum; the name of the seminal punk-rock band, the title of a book about deliquency in the ’50s. Gen Y, it’s even more insulting. How grey such efficient generational classification? How misleading this neat discretion. Gen X, Gen Y: does Gen Z follow? It’s the last letter of the alphabet. Somehow, something tells me that if today’s newborns are collectively referred to thus twenty years hence then the alphabetical label will actually mean something finally.

X, Y, Z. Symbols of the times. Not in anyway descriptive of the millions of lives it reduces to some collective set of soundbyte stereotypes but expressive of something else. Something that has no convenient shorthand glyph that tells you what it is. Whatever something is, in the words of ‘my generation, it sucks.


27 Sep


“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, 1797-99
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes

In dreams I walk with you. Dream a little dream of me. Dream, dream, dream that I want you. Mr Sandman, send me a dream. I’m dreaming my life away.

All animals dream, save echidnas or some such. Cats dream of being bigger, hunting people they don’t like. Dogs dream the boss throws the stick all day, lets ’em eat at the table like everyone else. It’s the purist nonsense that you know in your heart to be true: there is a place called the Dreaming. We go there every day.

It is the place you long for, it’s a place you should fear. It’s the reason we must be rational, be virtuous, be noble. It’s where we got the idea. Somewhere in the everywhere and nowhere land of dreaming is a grotto perhaps: a face, a melody, a tree. Somewhere there is some thing or some body that is the reason you are glad to be alive even if you forget it when you wake up.

We have language so our dreams are tapestry. Endless kaleidoscope arcs and loops of crazy story; crazy pictures. Tales from the place where sailors go, stories from the skerries of Nightmare. The speeches of Hell. The songs of Paradise. But the Dreaming is not mere escapist fantasy. Tho’ a feedback loop effect obtains, superhero movies come from dreams not the other way around. From dreams, the truth that things are not as they appear. Not entirely. From words, the ability to articulate this; from hands, the ability to mark it down on walls and trees and skin.

Dreams come to us, it’s writ, thru one of two gates: that of ivory, that of horns. Most of our dreams come thru the gate of ivory. These are piffle. Frivolous wish fulfillment: sex fantasies, money fantasies, food fantasies. Greedy monkeys getting everything they want in la-la land. I’m glad I forget most of my dreams. But the dreams that enter the world thru the gates of horn bear the truth somehow. To them attention must be paid. I’ve had such dreams and can still recollect their imagery, their feel. What prophecy was contained therein? What revelations born? Shall we subject them to the cold hard light of Reason and see?

There are those reading this I know to be hostile to superstition. They know the mothers of fear are people who take dreams seriously. Indeed, I have some years now associated with stern fact, confronting the world’s unpleasantness and inconveniences. I have tried to see without sentiment the way things really are, what’s really going on. How far my gaze has penetrated and what utility was born of it remains to be seen. But underneath all this lies a dream that I know to be dangerous. How many revolutionaries have made a friend of Horror pursuing this dream? How many millions were stripped of dignity and life to fulfill it?

Francisco was right. The sleep of reason is monstrous. It breeds monsters and nihilists. I have been a nihilist. Was I a monster? Life was monstrous.

I am no longer a nihilist. I know what I believe and that what I believe is no-one else’s business or obligation. I have dreams that are the most real things in the world. Dreams of creation, dreams of love. Dreams of God. They are too big to be ignored and so are nothing if nothing physical manifests in consequence. If not, they must be discarded, killed.

Kill them all! say my Lords of Utility. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts”. The groans of the world are the offspring of Fancy.

This is the truth and I know it, regardless of facts: you must wake up. And when you wake up you must take these dreams and make them whole. But only if something whole and good may come of them. If not, if they are immaterial or destructive; if they are facile, a tower in a sand castle, then you must ignore them. You must fight them, you must win the victory over yourself. Nothing comes of nothing. And if nothing comes of your dreams they are nothing. And if your dreams are nothing what are you?


26 Sep


“The Lighthouse II”, 1901
August Strindberg (1849-1912)


26 Sep

A little gentle northern light.


26 Sep


The Duchess thought Reginald did not exceed the ethical standard which circumstances demanded.

“Of course,” she resumed combatively, “it’s the prevailing fashion to believe in perpetual change and mutability, and all that sort of thing, and to say we are all merely a sort of improved primeval ape – of course you subscribe to that doctrine.”

“I think it’s decidedly premature; in most people I know the process is far from complete.”

“And of course you are quite irreligious?”

“Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the medieval picturesqueness of the one with the modern convenience of the other.”

“Reginald at the Theatre”
Reginald, 1904