Friday, 27 November 2020

Improbability, Chance, and the Nineteenth-Century Realist Novel

 [Notes for the speech I gave this afternoon launching Adam Grener's wonderful new book Improbability, Chance, and the Nineteenth-Century Realist Novel

Writing as the triumph of fascism disfigured German society with shocking violence, brutality and seemingly irrational bursts of racist mysticism aggression and paranoia, a group of important critics – mostly Jewish, all in or around the Communist Party – tried to make sense of how literature could respond to a world so improbable, so nightmarish, and so uncertain. Brecht, Lukacs, Bloch, and Adorno were all as socialists, democrats, and Marxists, products of radical strains of Enlightenment thinking: how then could universalist, rational thought comprehend the grotesque passions of fascism?


It was in this crucible that the realism debate was forged and, almost a century on, it is on their terms that the debate still plays out. On realism’s vocation Lukacs and Brecht were largely in agreement. For Lukacs “the question of totality plays a decisive role” as the goal of realism is “to penetrate the laws governing objective reality and to uncover the deeper, hidden, mediated not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society.” Realism “captures tendencies of development that only exist incipiently and have not yet had the opportunity to unfold their entire human and social potential.” For Brecht, “realism means: discovering the causal complexes of society.” Where they differed – sharply, to be sure, polemically, certainly – is over questions of mediation, technique, approach. What representational tools, Brecht asks, are adequate to capturing the dynamic totality of fascism? That is a challenge with political and ethical, as well as aesthetic, implications and urgencies.


How that debate atrophies, over the next ninety years, into a just-so story about an allegedly ‘naïve’ realism seeking to fool its reader into imagining the text reproduces the world ‘as it is’ demands another setting than this one, but it matters for the book we’re launching today. Middlemarch, for Colin MacCabe, shows Eliot’s “conviction that the real can be displayed and examined through a perfectly transparent language”. For Peter Bürger realism treats “language [as] a tool for the unproblematic representation of reality.” In New Zealand literary studies, meanwhile, Erin Mercer’s Telling the Real Story is a book-length argument against what she sees as the dominance of “safe, middling, ‘beige’ realist fiction in local selective traditions. Just this month Kirsten McDougall criticised the “realist overlords” gatekeeping literary fiction.


Realism, on these accounts, is both wearingly dominant in its closed assumptions – there’s more to life than all that – and, somehow at the same time, insufficiently realist, insufficiently attuned to the variety and improbability of life itself. Realism, Fredric Jameson wrote at the start of this century, is “exhausted” in the face of globalisation.


Adam intervenes into this long-running but strangely stalled debate with Improbability, Chance, and the Nineteenth-Century Realist Novel by taking up the challenge of improbability head-on. The improbable is, for Adam, not a bug in the realist novel but a feature: the improbable, he writes “is central to the representational aims and strategies of the nineteenth-century novel […] a realist mode that is fundamentally historicist in its commitments […] improbable events like chance and coincidence are integral to this project […] what is most important and interesting about realism is its capacity to represent a historical and contingent world, rather than its ability to occlude its status as fiction or to conjure a conventional (or convincing) depiction of the ordinary or everyday” (3)


This book’s great excitement, for me, lies in this opening move: instead of berating a realism that doesn’t exist (as in MacCabe’s misreading of Middlemarch) or setting realism up as, at best, the prophet of a Modernism to come, Adam attends to the actual dynamics and dilemmas of crucial nineteenth century texts to see what it is they confront and how they confront this. Improbable endings, wayward plots, and chance moments are, in this reading, ways of accounting for a world in tension rather than compromises from a realist ideal.


Adam is fascinating on the distinctions between chance, understandable in texts before the Industrial Revolution often as a sign of the workings of Providence, and probability, that rise in statistical thinking and abstraction that was part of the great cultural revolution of Industrial capitalism. Realism, on his reading, negotiates between these two ways of understanding the world. Chance, he argues, is Chance “a name for the tension between individual variation and aggregate order” (21), an aesthetic fix for the “The gulf that emerges between thinking about particularities and collectives, the individual and society. Chance provided novelists a narrative mechanism for thinking through and mediating the relationship between these scales of reality” (20) The determinist frame of probability and the statistical robs us of any sense of agency; the operations of chance rob of us any sense of causality. Realism navigates between the two. Think of Albert Wendt’s Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1980), one of the greatest realist novels of the last fifty years. Tauilopepe’s development in that novel is both the product of big, abstract forces of colonialism and capitalism reshaping Samoan society and, in crucial moments, a question of chance encounters, opportunities, risks. Wendt prompts us to think on their interrelationship.



Improbability, Chance, and the Realist Novel advances its case through close readings of important novels, these close readings being both bravura performances on their own terms and, cumulatively, a history of how realism faces an increasingly stark opposition between individual and abstraction across the century. The reader is treated to Dickensian coincidence, Trollopean statistics, chance in Hardy, with Adam all the while emphasizing how “it is precisely by drawing attention to the artificiality of their narratives that Austen and Scott cultivate modes of attention and cognition adequate to historical particularity.” Dickens’ oddball coincidences, in this reading, are a way of attending to a “world whose scale cannot be reconciled with individual experience”. Chance “figure[s] individual experience and agency in relation to the abstract scale of the social.” In a moment when the most fleeting chance encounter – a sneeze on a bus – could link an individual to a world-historical event in the COVID crisis these lines have special resonance.


Seventies aesthetic radicalism, its Althusserian varieties especially, can feel restrictive and suffocating, with their view of realism as “programming” determinate readers. Adam’s, by contrast, is a very American book, in the best traditions of that republic. The terms are often used as boo-words but, here, I mean them as words of praise: this book is liberal, democratic, humanist, and liberal humanist. The reader matters in this book: Austen’s very minor characters prompt “the reader to speculate on the contours of their unmapped futures”. Hardy’s doubled voices together give us “a considerably more complicated view” than either singly, and so on. This is very clearly a study written by a student of Harry Shaw and indebted, behind him, to Wayne Booth. If I dissent, finally, from the individualism and liberal hopes of that tradition, tonight I want to record my admiration for its ongoing, generous, generative capacities here.


A final comment on probability and politics. Adam opens his book with a remark from Amitav Ghosh to the effect that improbability is the reason that literary fiction has yet to integrate climate change into its representation of reality. Other traditions – Science Fiction, fantasy, fable – Ghosh suggest, may be needed for this outlandish catastrophe. Adam’s study is, among other things, a riposte to this claim, ending with a plea for us to “discover modes of rethinking individuality and collectivity” through the nineteenth-century realist novel’s work thinking through abstraction and particularity, scale and individuality. I started reading his book as the final death scenes of the Trump campaign played out, all ghoulish melodrama and melting hair dye. Trump’s improbability, and the ways his bizarre menagerie defy realist comprehension, have been a running theme of the past four years. Adam’s study suggests another way of thinking. We are, by coincidence, the same age, and so our adult lives have been determined by the War on Terror, a bipartisan assault on civil liberties domestically, the rise of the Tea Party, the radicalization of the Republican Party and the drawn-out social catastrophe of the Global Financial Crisis. Trump’s rise, for all that it was carried out in the garb of the country fair barker, is the result, in other words, of a complex pattern stretching back decades. His particular victory in 2016 relied on a series of lucky chances, to be sure, and was, on any sober reckoning improbable. But it happened, and those who hope that, with his exit, normal life will return to the republic are in for some unpleasant shocks. All this suggests that our moment demands, at the level of fiction, its realist.


Saturday, 9 May 2020

Tradition and Liberation: a memory of Neil Davidson (1957 - 2020)

I had been expecting to see Neil Davidson again at Historical Materialism in London last year, where we had caught up last – in 2015 – shouting snatches of a conversation about the Independence Referendum over the hubbub at the student bar. And then news came that he was ill and, now, gone. Comrades who knew him better and longer have written movingly on his political commitments and contributions (here are two from Jamie Allinson and Raymond Morrell), and Jordy Cummings has offered a memorial to his role as a cultural theorist. I want to pay tribute here to how those two lines of thought combined, in writing and activity, in a way that was important for me.

My first encounter with Neil was after meeting at Marxism 2007, when he and his partner Cathy hosted Shomi and I for an afternoon in Cauther Ha’. It was a wonderfully incongruous occasion: the day still and mid-summer, sitting in an open garden looking out on countryside and enjoying a plate of cheese while the talk raced over almost every direction: MacDiarmid and Scottish modernism; the Anti-Nazi League and abstraction; Stalinism and Science Fiction. Neil seemed to have read everything – a visit to the garage-cum-library at the end of the day confirmed this – and to have an opinion on more still, all the while being encouraging, open, wide-ranging. All this despite a generation’s age gap between him and us, two near strangers from the other side of the world. We were wary of some topics initially, being in different socialist groups from a shared political family and some history of disagreements, but the talk moved quickly to current struggles. Like most older activists still in the fight Neil always talked about what was happening now; I wouldn’t find out about many of his past experiences until reading his obituaries. We stayed in email contact from there and in a few difficult patches, when I’d made bad political decisions coming back to New Zealand that had shaken my confidence, he offered much-needed and understated encouragement. His working life as a public servant made this odd from time to time: I had parts of an email exchange on James Kelman bounced back from the Scottish Office’s server for their obscenities!

Neil’s politics were thoroughly internationalist, as was his thinking and outlook, and so, of course, he was also contemptuous towards British nationalisms. It was no surprise, then, that his case for Scottish independence was a non-nationalist one, working, in immediate politics just as in his historical writing, against any illusions in a sentimentalized vision of Scottishness as naturally more progressive or worthy than any other national identity. But, as Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia, “one must have tradition in oneself to hate it properly”. Unlike the “late-comers and new-comers” Adorno saw breaking with radicalism under the weight of tradition, Neil was formed, intellectually and politically, in Scotland, and in the general atmosphere of a small nation that, until recently at least, didn’t figure all that much in the wider debates of the state under which it’s ruled. This made him pay attention earlier than many on the UK (if not Scottish) left to changes in national consciousness that required shifts in political attention; it also insulted him against hopeful projections onto Scottish politics we see now from elsewhere. The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (2000) is such an important book, among other reasons, because it carries on this political task into historical research: understanding Scottishness – and its creation – not to deride or gush but to understand and, in a wider internationalism, transform.

There is a passage in How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (2012) on the question of tradition that is my favourite in Neil’s writing, and that fuses his historical work, political commitments and wide-ranging cultural interests. In the course of one of How Revolutionary’s (many) digressions, Neil pauses to look at how old Stalinist ways of ‘rediscovering’ revolutionary traditions in the past have tended to creep into much liberationist and libertarian socialist writing on culture and history. It’s natural to want to find inspiration, and ancestry, in the past, and to admire the bravery of Covenanters or to want to be able to narrate one’s own struggles now as part of a longer story of human campaigning, suffering, and endurance. Neil draws out how so much of this kind of story-telling in Stalinist scholarly and popular history was actually a way of dulling internationalism, stitching socialism into pre-existing national stories and thus deadening its revolutionary, world-breaking and changing promise and necessity. But he also, firmly and sharply, insists on how these searches for tradition blur conceptual lines between proletarian revolution – world-transforming, democratic, mass, participatory – and bourgeois revolution, those breaks that have as their consequence the development of capitalist market relations. The latter need no heroism, and have as their consequence colonialism, exploitation, and environmental destruction as much, if not more, than a free press, elections, and the rule of law. There are no ‘democratic tasks’ for the bourgeois revolution, Neil insisted, and no clear line between their breaks and what ours will be.

For someone working as a socialist activist and writer in a society formed by settler colonialism these passages had a particular resonance, as does Neil’s Scottish example. His inspiration – to work from one context while facing the world – stands, as does, for me, the lesson his writing gives about what a New Zealand internationalism would be. There is nothing to redeem a search for a (Pākehā) New Zealand dissenting tradition decoupled from internationalism, in a culture based on dispossesion of Māori land, the import of British capitalist social relations, and the racialised and gendered injustices of the welfare state era. No point speaking of the First Labour government without discussing state repression under the Second World War; nothing to be gained glorying in the Waterfront Workers’ battles without remembering the racial politics of the union’s dominant currents; none of Ettie Rout’s sexual liberation without her eugenics. History is an occasion for contest, not a rummaging-box for progressive narratives. Or: not tradition – precedents!

Neil’s personal virtue was, sometimes, a stylistic vice: even his best books and articles have an air of the Internal Bulletin to them, with their numbered arguments and counter-arguments. This came from an admirable desire to achieve things politically, and to write, unlike so much academic production-for-production’s-sake, with a purpose. I loved the energy and principled agility of his thinking, open to changing his mind on much-treasured points when their usefulness to the project of liberation withered (as in his rejection of the relevance of ‘permanent revolution’, an argument I was won to almost instantly) and to allowing his own thoughts to be seen in movement (as in much of his writing on Scottish history). He couldn’t stand reductive blethers and instrumentalism in others’ writing on culture, once writing a blistering response to a dismissive piece on Walter Benjamin in International Socialism in an evening out of, he wrote to me, ‘irritation. But a (healthy) distrust of pretentiousness and academic pointlessness, such marked aversions in writers in our International Socialist tradition, kept him at times, I think, from integrating his wide-ranging cultural interests and his political-historical work. The counter to that claim are those magisterial reflections on modernism and the spectre of Trotsky he gave to Red Wedge. I wish we could have seen where they would go next.

Neil was a comrade, a mentor and an example. I’m going to miss him and I’m sad he’s gone.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

My 2019 in Poetry


I was on holiday, and away from a computer, when all of the end-of-decade best-of lists were getting written up and passed around. So here’s mine, rather late and for just one year. And as not much more than a list of my favourite poetry discoveries (and a few re-discoveries).

Laura Ritland, East and West (Montréal: Véhicule Press, 2018).

The collection that’s given me the most pleasure these last twelve months. Superb poems on giant squid, jellyfish, sharks, sea spiders, a perfect opening piece in ‘Summer Parties’ (‘the indifference/ of unopened books and the radio’s paper voice/ talking of tragedies in the next door room.’). A good, showing-off and fun sonnet ‘for winding late clocks’. So much clever thoughtfulness. 

Emily Jungmin Yoon, A Cruelty Special to Our Species (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).

‘I’m being as honest as a woman can’: most of the reviews I’ve read have, rightly probably, focused on the testimonial poems and their historical and political importance. That mattered for me too, of course, but I worry the publishers perhaps downplay Yoon’s virtuosity when they package this as ‘urgently relevant for our times’. It’s that, absolutely, but it’s also dazzling artistry. The series of poems each title ‘An Ordinary Misfortune’ especially.  History is what hurts.

Sasha Dugdale, Joy (Manchester: Carcanet, 2017).

The long opening poem, imagining and voicing Catherine Blake after William’s death, I was lucky to read first at Blake’s grave after seeing the big exhibition of his at the Tate, and that coloured my response accordingly. There’s a wonderful villanelle in here, too.

John Dickson, What happened on the way to Oamaru (Christchurch: Untold Books, 1986).

Irregular punctuation! Typewriter tabulation! Hairy tales! Lots of period markers here, but lots more also from the great ‘asset stripper of that wonderful junk heap known as European culture’. ‘Do you always make so much fuss / over something that happens each day?’

Kate Lilley, Tilt (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2018).

Press coverage talked sometimes of the ‘revelations’ of abuse in this collection but, as Lilley herself has pointed out, the stories were always there in her mother’s own poetry. That they passed unremarked of course makes that worse. What stick with me as also particularly powerful are ‘Harm’s Way’, a meditation on the dishonest work language is made to do in the Australian state’s refugee regime, and ‘Tilt’, a complex and beautiful memory of a lost Sydney.

Alison Croggon, The Blue Gate (Melbourne: Black Pepper, 1997).

The Yarra’s Whitman, with some vaunting sonnets thrown in for good measure. And ‘Life with its kindling firsts / strikes a sudden pain / inside my pelvis.’ The ‘sorrow / of your swelling mother / who cannot remember.’

Bill Manhire, The Victims of Lightning (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010).

‘1950s’ and ‘The Best Burns Statue’ especially. I could do without the songs, but.

Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015).

‘The way my father,/ in his affable moods, always thinks you/ want a gin and tonic too.’

Anna Livesey, Good Luck (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003).

‘the very mud of our belief, the swamp of/ our blinding, devastating revelation.’

Kevin Connolly, Asphalt Cigar (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1995).

Lots of period silliness (and charm), sure, and lots of strutting, but ‘Style is a collision of speed and beauty.’

Kathleen Hellen, The Only Country was the Color of My Skin (Hilo: Saddle Road Press, 2018).

Poems exploring the history of U.S. occupation in Japan and the post-war period, a history Hellen is connected to through her own life and her parents’ roles.

Mia Ayumi Malhorta, Isako Isako (Farmington: Alice James Books, 2018).

A debut collection, and a contribution to the literature memorializing and exploring Japanese-American internment in the United States during the Pacific War, and its long aftermath in individual and community suffering. ‘A History of Lost Things’.

The two critical works that have stuck with me are Stephen Hollis’s Almost Islands (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2018) on ‘Phyllis Webb and the pursuit of the unwritten’, and Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016). Hollis’s a lovely, thoughtful, meandering walk around Webb’s work, as well as around his own. Lerner’s has all that you’d expect, but is also an affectingly sincere bit of worrying at why poetry matters and feels wrong at the same time. There’s an egotistical generosity at work in poetry, he argues, trying to project individual experience into a communal, universal, Truth out there beyond us all. And he pulls off a proper close reading of McGonagall.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Red Salute to Teresia Teaiwa

The last proper conversation I had with Teresia Teaiwa involved a lot of scheming. We had, the year before, come out of a partial victory through industrial action at work, and were pondering what we might next have to expect this coming year. That led to a conversation on the state of our union’s branch, on the Living Wage, and how we might build the movement of staff and students at Victoria in order to win this demand. And then that led – by way of talking about who would benefit from a Living Wage, and who loses out the most currently – to talk of Māori and Pasefika students, their needs and aspirations, their literature, how we might be failing them or serving them as teachers and trade unionists. About where Māori and Pacific literatures could be found in universities and criticism, and about how they might unexpectedly offer insights in places – our unionism, our activism, my socialism – we least expect.

The exchange was typical of my experiences with Teresia: off-hand and yet urgent; measured, thoughtful, calm, seemingly infinitely patient and yet all the time shot through with what Martin Luther King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’. Teresia was a relaxed and relaxing presence amidst a hum of anxiousness and self-enforced busyness, but that was only because she realised how much there was needed to be done. And how little time, once the question of climate change and the ecological devastation of the Pacific came into consciousness, there is for us to do what is needed. She brought these qualities to her writing – both poetry and critical pieces, especially on militarism and the militarisation of the Pacific – and to her organising and activism. Much of that activist work was, as usual, unseen or not easily visible: relationships built, colleagues drawn into union, tensions eased or – sometimes – usefully drawn out into open debate.

Teresia was a genuine intellectual, something not at all the same as – or often, indeed, really coinciding with – the role of the academic. She made thinking possible, encouraged thought and criticism and wrote, spoke, and organised always with an audience and a goal in mind: anti-colonial struggle, and the long freedom struggle in West Papua in particular; the project of human freedom. That project, in Teresia’s work and life, was rooted in the Pacific and in the celebration and critical exploration of Pacific resistance and cultures, but, as always with properly critical work, it opened out to us all. She received accolades and official recognition, all richly deserved, for her research and teaching, but these were just red roses on the highways: the road itself led on to getting thought working for social transformation.

Once you stop thinking about small islands in a large sea and start thinking about a sea of islands, Epeli Hau’ofa teaches us, what seems insignificant and weak reveals itself to be vast, strong, knitted together and full of expansive possibility. I learned about and through that text thanks to Teresia, who herself had important personal and scholarly ties to Hau’ofa. Teresia managed a similar kind of reversal with her teaching and her approach to Pasefika students. Endless repetition of statistics about disadvantage, no matter how well meaning, can reinforce stereotypes of failures waiting to happen. Talking to Teresia introduced you, instead, to poets, performers, intellectuals in formation, almost boundless creative energy wanting to take its place in this unequal world needing changing. One sign of how much that trust and belief mattered is the enormous response we’ve seen from her students already, just hours from the news of her death. Some highly intelligent people make others around them seem smaller, but Teresia had the anti-capitalist gift of making you feel, after conversation or exchange with her, cleverer yourself.

Her work developed in dialogue with Marxism, drawing on the dissident Marxists in particular of the anti-colonial struggles and, although we adhered to different traditions, programmes, and  organisations, I drew – and will continue to draw – on her teaching, encouragement, inspiration and example. These institutions can be lonely places for socialist intellectual life: Teresia managed, by her work and example, to make this one feel like it could be made a viable home.

These thoughts I’ve written down without taking the time properly to revise so I’ve a chance now to say thank you, and to share them with the many others of us who have benefited from having this poet and militant thinker a part of our lives. I only wish it could have been for many more years still. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Symmes Roll

In breaks at work these last weeks I've been dipping in and out of James McGonigal and John Coyle's fine and generous selection of Edwin Morgan's letters. They're a treat.

A lovely surprise, this Friday last, stumbling across an account of Morgan reading Ian Wedde's masterpiece Symmes Hole. The Scottish Pacific rises up again! The contact was via - who else? - Alan Riach.

Morgan takes a while to warm up to the novel, writing to Riach in April 1987:

“Well I finished that extraordinary Symmes book and have now passed it on to Dr McCarey from whom you will doubtless receive a ‘second opinion’. I must admit I skipped here and there, finding the ubiquitous triple dotting … extrememly irritating …. And the disconnectedness that might be a virtue in poetry … somewhat worrying in a prose story. I think I was also a mite disappointed that the title promised more than ever appeared; perhaps I was misled by Verne/Poe/ERBurroughs expectations; the hole, in fact, seemed to be fairly peripheral as holes go. Like your father, I enjoyed the ‘sea’ parts of it best, especially such longish passages as escaped the plague of dots. The great virtue of the book is in what it brings together; you’re forced to think and rethink. Its weakness, no it’s not exactly a weakness, its problem for most readers I imagine is simply its density, and the very difficult of perceiving a goal. Anyhow I’m very grateful to you for shooting it across my bow.”

He continues to other subjects, before finishing:

“Dan Sweigert, of Batavia (Illinois, not Indonesia) is busy setting my ‘Message Clear’ to piano roll music (for player pianos). Letters become holes in rolls. Symmes Roll, and a vicus of recirculation from the northern periphery –“

* * *

Saturday, 18 April 2015

ANZAC: they'll remember it for us wholesale

I hadn’t expected the shift from pomposity to kitsch to be so sudden, or so vertiginous. Gesturing at its own hyperreality the opening this morning of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park – a bipartisan project of nationalist reaction planted in the middle of Wellington – things moved from the physical to the digital, from actors marching in front of us to footage of history as consumer spectacle on the big screen. The same performers, the same script, the move seamless. A woman in red prancing about the tower until, above us, the War Memorial threw out billows of the same fabric, the same symbol. Blood? Memory? Poppies? Intoxication, certainly. It was Leni Riefenstahl meeting the Feebles.

“in face of the massive realities of present-day social existence, individuals do not actually experience events. Because history itself is the spectre haunting modern society, pseudo-history has to be fabricated at every level of the consumption of life; otherwise, the equilibrium of the frozen time that presently holds sway could not be preserved.” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 200)

Who better to package and present our pseudo-history than Peter Jackson, kitsch master and union-buster of the Wellington ‘creative’ class? There’s an obvious – and essential – political point to make about memory and forgetting, the traces suppressed (dissent, sedition, resistance, revolt) in the recording of this particular story. But this morning something deeper seemed at work – full fantasy, full consumption, ANZAC as video game and branding exercise and empty spectacle. Join #theshadowbattalion, care of your local bank! Keep your memories fresh in the crisper over the ditch at Woolies!

A "new depthlessness...a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum." A “society bereft of all historicity, whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles." (Who else? Jameson back in 1984, and still making the case today.)

This is New Zealand nationalism, however, a different package to the brasher and more direct boosterism of the rather more ambitious political culture across the Tasman. The volume’s down low; the emphasis is on commemoration, compassion, tributes. The tone is sober. The message is the same nonetheless; gathering for our protest this morning we had a plain-clothes police officer waiting to try and intimidate us and to threaten our right to assembly. Dissent gets stifled in low key ways in this country perhaps, but it gets stifled all the same.

And that red! The price of nationhood, some polite voice on Nine to Noon called it earlier in the week. Workers’ blood, wasted invading Turkey a century ago. What relevance has that to now, and what forces are served in this aestheticization of politics? The resonances were somewhere between Marvel comics and European fascism. 

That, of course, isn’t a question you’re supposed to ask. They died for our freedoms, so make sure you don’t try and use those freedoms. Debord again: “The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute.” Or, as the man said to me this morning, there’s a time and a place for everything: the Prime Minister might be there, but no politics at this war ceremony please.

I’m glad we did a little to disrupt the spectacle, and I’m dreading the coming years in this carnival of reactionBut I wonder this morning too if ‘peak brANZAC’ might be on its way. They can remember it for us wholesale. Capitalism can commodify everything – even memories – but there’s a risk in that for our rulers. Video games sometimes give you the controls.

[Images: the photographs of our protest I took, and the others are from the twitter feed of the British High Commissioner, who declares himself 'moved' by this tribute to sacrifice.] 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Jottings from Marxism in Melbourne

Back yesterday from a week in Melbourne, and four days at Marxism 2015. I’ve been travelling across, on and off, to Marxism for a dozen years now; I think this year’s conference was the best and most rewarding I’ve been to yet.

The stand-out sessions, for me, were talks by Marjorie Thorpe and Noel C Tovey AM. Both I’m sure I’ll be telling my children about many years from now, as moments I was near enough to History to feel it shivering. Thorpe, in sharing stories of her family’s times in Fitzroy, managed to recreate a whole social world of Aboriginal resistance, survival, struggle and celebration. A revelation. Noel C Tovey AM is one of Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal dancers, actors, directors and performers. I hadn’t, to my shame, heard of him or his achievement before the conference – sitting through the excerpts he performed for us of Little Black Bastard, the story of the suffering early years, was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I’ve had in years. How often do you listen to the memories of a man who was at the Stonewall Riots, and has performed on some of the most distinguished stages of the world? He was Young, Black, and Gay in 1950s Australia and he has survived to teach us all. A mind-bending life. Liz Ross’s interview with him in Red Flag gives just a little sampling of a richer feast.

What else? Khury Petersen-Smith was eloquent and wise on the struggles against racist state murder in the United States and the #BlackLivesMatter movement; a series of talks on philosophy and theory (on Lise Vogel; on Spinoza; on Hegel’s Phenomenology); an eye-opening and absorbing account by ETU militant Strawbs Hayes on organizing FIFO workers. This last talk was as much a cultural experience as a political one for me – who knew unionists in the Northern Territory can hold meetings under the shade of the gum tree?

The organization I’m a member of was able to host Nadia Abu-Shanab, from Auckland Action Against Poverty, as one of the speakers over the weekend. There are connections to be made.


My own talk on the poets in World War One went well, I think, although the stage is usually the worst place to judge those kinds of things.

It was a particular pleasure to be able to do the Australian launch of Writing the 1926 General Strike as a part of the conference, and so nice to have a dear friend and comrade James Plested do the launching. Thanks to the organisers for making this possible.

And the books! My budget, as usual, blown: Bryan Palmer’s biography of James P. Cannon; Cannon’s own Notebooks of an Agitator; a collection of essays by Alan M. Wald on Writing from the Left.

Stutje’s biography of Ernest Mandel.

(I've learnt more from Mandel than a love of what Americans call "sweater vests", but I won't pretend that isn't part of the education too.)

Otto Braun’s account of being A Comintern Agent in China, covering his time journey with Mao and the Party through the Long March and after. This I picked up for $1 on the sale bin, and am not sure what to expect: the introduction mentions that Braun “suffered from the disadvantage of being ignorant of the Chinese language, culture, and history.” Let’s see.

There are lots of new friends met each time I go over for the conference, and that youth and energy are inspiring. But important for me too are the old faces – people I met a decade ago who are active still and in a range of different campaigns and questions. We’re building something real.

[The conference photographs I've taken from the Marxism Conference tumblr and Facebook pages -- both accessible via]