Monday, July 18, 2011

Temple Grandin


Both of these women are Temple Grandin.


The younger woman is dressed as is expected of an actress at a film premiere. She looks stunning. The classic pose – one-quarter turned, leading with the right shoulder – accentuates her lovely figure. She projects total confidence as she looks into the camera with a smile that is both friendly and seductive.

The older woman is dressed like a rodeo enthusiast on a night out. She faces the camera as one would an X-Ray machine, unflatteringly exposing the whole surface of her body to its clinical eye. She lets her arms rest limply by her sides, which gives her a slightly hunched look. Her gaze is fixed into the lens, but she does not or can not fashion a smile, just an air of puzzlement and suspicion. Not cold or aloof, but unfamiliar and slightly apprehensive.

Both of these women are Temple Grandin, although the younger one is also Claire Danes, and tonight she is thoroughly locked into the role of young movie star. She made herself look unattractive for a film. She wore no make up and dyed her hair a mousy brown and wore flashy rodeo clothes decorated with gold and silver cattle pins, and spoke in a tense, loud monotone. But would she even be permitted to look less than totally stunning, and be less than perfectly charming, at the film’s premiere? And which is her self? Could she wear trousers and a loud shirt, could she place her arm around the older woman’s shoulders or hips as the picture is taken? No, she must look the part that is required of her, standing next to this older, less attractive, visibly quirky woman, and have eyes and body only for the camera. As if the older woman weren’t there.

The older woman is Temple Grandin all the time, and she is so much more interesting.


Temple Grandin was born in Boston in 1947 and at age three she was diagnosed with infantile autism. In those days the condition was very poorly understood, the prevailing theory in the United States being that it was caused by a failure of the mother to bond with her child, and virtually the sole course of treament – or non-treatment, rather – was life-long institutionalisation.

Temple’s behaviour at this time would have to be characterised as profoundly disturbed: she was non-verbal and prone to screaming fits, aggressive physical outbursts and flinging or smearing her faeces. Her mother however refused to accept the bleak prognosis. She was convinced that Temple could be brought back from the strange, distant place to which she had gradually disappeared from the age of about six months. She taught Temple to speak and to read, and enrolled her at kindergarten at age five and then at primary school. It was around this time that Temple, while still exhibiting many of the behaviours associated with autism, began to demonstrate special abilities, chiefly in art and in technical disciplines. These talents were allowed to develop into a sufficient foundation for her to enrol at college. There were still several subjects in which she didn’t do well – languages were a weakness, and she could never master algebra – and by all accounts she had very significant social difficulties as a teenager, but she had already achieved by now what according to medical science ought to have been unthinkable.

It is on those late teenage years, in the transition between boarding school and college, that Mick Jackson’s HBO biopic on Temple Grandin is primarily focussed, and for sensible reasons: there is much drama in Grandin’s struggle at this time against the rigidity of society and the education system, as well as her own, and it generates a tension that is quite beautifully portrayed by Ms Danes. Out of this struggle came independence: a career as a scientist specialising in animal welfare and as a consultant for the meat industry and designer of more humane and efficient feedlots, slaughterhouses and facilities for cattle.

However of greater interest to a wider public is Grandin’s other life, as an advocate and chronicler of autism. The boundary between these two lives is marked by her double online presence – Temple Grandin’s animal science website, Temple Grandin’s autism website – but in fact they are deeply intertwined. One of Grandin’s most consistent claims is that it was her autism that allowed her to gain her remarkable insight into the inner lives of animals, and conversely it was by studying animals and the apparent similarities between their thinking and emotions and her own that she developed her theory of the autistic mind. Her writings reflect this, and so the introduction of Animals in Translation is as touching and insightful a document of her life with autism as you’ll find, just as Thinking in Pictures – her main treatise on autism to date – is full of fascinating accounts of and speculations on how animals think and behave.

The correlation is at the centre of Grandin’s work, and concerns both the modes of perception of animals and autistic people and their emotions. On the latter, Grandin writes:
Animals and people with autism have simpler emotions. They are either happy, angry, fearful, or sad. They do not have complicated mixtures of emotion. Another similarity is that fear is the primary emotion in both autism and animals. (Thinking in Pictures, 202)
But just as crucial to understanding the balance of these emotions is her description of how other mammals perceive the world, based on the observation of Grandin’s own predominantly visual thinking.
One day I was driving on the freeway when an elk ran across the road. A picture flashed into my mind of a car rear-ending me. That would be the consequence for putting on the brakes. Another picture flashed up of an elk crashing through the windshield, which would be the consequence of swerving. A third picture came up of the elk passing in front of the car. That would happen if I just slowed down. Now three pictures were on the computer screen in my mind. I clicked on the slowing down choice and avoided an accident. I think what I have just described is how animals think. (Thinking in Pictures, 221)

If it’s true that at the core of autism there is an inability to develop a theory of the human mind – that is to say to understand the inner life of others, what motivates people to think and behave in the way that they do – then it is paradoxically matched in Grandin by a highly sophisticated theory of the animal mind. Just as importantly, hers is also a computational theory, as we can not only observe in the use of computer-based analogies evidenced in the passage above, but also infer from her reliance on a compartmentalised model of the mind in which different functions are not deeply enmeshed but rather neatly distributed.

Computational theories are central not only to fields of research such as evolutionary psychology, but also to our pop understanding of how the mind works. I believe this to be one of the reasons of autism’s remarkable mass cultural appeal. If the geeks of The Big Bang Theory really are everymen and not just objects of voyeuristic ridicule, as I would like to propose, it is because autism – and especially its so-called high-functioning manifestation – is increasingly seen as a cultural condition that is relevant outside the bounds of its clinical diagnosis.

Memory is central to this. One of Grandin’s cognitive advantages, the skill that perhaps more than any other has allowed her to succeed as an engineer and as a scientist, is what she describes as her computer-like capacity to retain highly detailed images in her working memory and save them in her long term memory, creating a repertoire to be manipulated to produce ever more complex conceptual and technical designs. When she had her first professional breakthrough – the design of a dip vat for vaccinating cattle for John Wayne’s Red River feed yard in Arizona – Grandin could not secure the services of a draughtsman in time for her deadline. However just by looking over his shoulder for a few minutes she was later able to produce a perfect design by means of what she stresses was an entirely mechanical process of imitation, down to the detail of purchasing the same brand of pencils.


Now most of us don’t have photographic memories, or the capacity to remember long lists of symbols and names, but our computers do, and if we could just use them to remember everything then maybe we could do anything, or at least keep our jobs, and live more ordered lives.

This is the inverse of the fractured autistic reality described by Jeff Noon, but it still carries a significant measure of anxiety. The stress of conforming and acquiring the required level of marketable skills; the struggle to carve out one’s place in a world that is increasingly socialised by means of algorithms: these are pressures that make the emotional palette of autistic people more broadly shared. The fear for one’s livelihood, the darting around of the eyes in search of economic predators are anxieties that define our times.

(Some of the analogies are almost depressingly obvious. Grandin writes touchingly about the complex system of rules that she designed as a teenager in order to comply with the demands of her peers and of her educators – rules that she had to be develop painfully, step by step, since they made no intuitive sense to her, nor could she infer one based on the others. Now consider our social media platforms, consider Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and who follows whom and how you manage your lists and who gets excluded and why: this is a direct translation of neurotypical patterns of socialisation into an autistic puzzle.)


Sometimes with Temple Grandin one can be blinded by the insight and the achievements and forget about the person. In this respect she was fortunate to find in Oliver Sacks an early biographer, and I commend his 1995 essay ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’ – the wonderful phrase is hers – for a characteristically humane account of Temple Grandin and her struggle not just for personal affirmation, but for meaning in a life that had no place for conventional friendship or romantic companionship. I hope that there are philosophers out there studying Grandin’s remarkable hyper-object-oriented ontology (in Thinking in Pictures she reveals, tantalisingly: ‘To this day certain verb conjugations, such as "to be," are absolutely meaningless to me’ (15)), but it’s her ethics that is at the same time more hopeful and more challenging.

There is in Grandin – and Sacks was perhaps the first to notice it and put it in words – a deeply felt, almost harrowing desire to make a lasting contribution to improving the lives of domesticated animals and autistic people. It is likely this aspiration for enduring meaning that makes her especially upset at the thought of memoricide, at assaults such as those on the library and the Olympic stadium at Sarajevo, designed not primarily to kill people or damage buildings but to obliterate culture itself.

Grandin has in fact garnered more than just recognition: she has become a heroic figure. But along with the possibilities that her remarkable achievements have unlocked for us, along with the hope that she inspires, come the implicit, bundled expectations: that with appropriate support and dedicated parents any autistic person can, and therefore should, become, if not like Temple Grandin, at least high-functioning. It is not a claim that she would make herself, quite the contrary, but the expectations are heavy, and fraught, and Grandin’s own attitudes towards the divide between the polar ends of the autism spectrum remain somewhat problematic.

When she published her first autobiographical work, in 1986, Grandin spoke explicitly, as did noted researcher Bernard Rimland in the foreword, of individuals who ‘recovered’ from autism, amongst whom she evidently included herself. She also described her own journey with a very uncharacteristic turn of phrase:
In 1950 I was labeled autistic and groped my way from the far side of the darkness. (Emergence, 11)
It is possible that this characterisation of the more profound depths of Grandin’s autism as a darkness came to her co-author, Margaret Scariano. In her later work Grandin never referred to the experience of those pre-verbal years as a void – in fact some of the most remarkable passages in her writings are the ones in which she describes those early states of being, still intact in her memory, as being awash with sensation and thought. The obvious connection here is with the stunning short film In My Language, in which Amanda Baggs asks us to accept that that world of sensation is not devoid of meaning, to see past that ghastly label, low-functioning, and to broaden our conceptual model of what counts as a full mind and a full person.

By contrast Temple Grandin includes amongst her achievements ‘becoming more normal’.
More knowledge makes me act more normal. Many people have commented to me that I act much less autistic now than I did ten years ago. […] My mind works just like an Internet search engine that has been set to access only images. The more pictures I have stored in the Internet inside my brain the more templates I have of how to act in a new situation. More and more information can be placed in more and more categories. The categories can be placed in trees of master categories with many subcategories. For example, there are jokes that make people laugh and jokes that do not work. (Thinking in Pictures, 31)
We are deep in the fraught territory of ‘overcoming disability’ here, and we might ask what is the point of appearing more and more normal – measured against the cognitive cost, the sheer work of it – once one has already been accepted by the community. Indeed several high-functioning autistic people have reported that continually smoothing out their symptoms for the sake of social convention can breed its own anxieties. Grandin’s cautioning against the possibility that a cure for autism, should it ever be found, would rid the species of the geniuses and highly creative thinkers that a mild combination of the genes might produce – expressed most recently in her 2010 talk at TED – is similarly problematic in that it subordinates the validity, the meaningfulness of the life of autistic people on what they can achieve, their utility. And while it is not my place to pass judgment on this belief, or pretend to be able to grasp the anguish and the distress, the isolation and the unhappiness that autism can bring, there is a growing chorus amongst ASD sufferers against this view, and one of the strongest voices belongs again to Ms Baggs. And so perhaps low-functioning autism is the new frontier, the new disabling label, operating as the autism label did when Grandin did the unthinkable and wrote an autobiography.

The spectrum of autism itself is an emblematic thinking tool: it grades people according to the degree of strangeness, of otherness, according to whether or not they are capable or prepared to mimic normal behaviour, and function – that most loaded of verbs – amongst their peers. We may have come to a new place, a place where we are ready to accept that diversity has other dimensions that cannot be plotted on a linear scale. But if we are there at all we owe it also to the courage, the strength and the clarity of Temple Grandin.



Temple Grandin and Margaret M. Scariano. Emergence: Labeled Autistic. New York: Grand Central Publishing 1995.

Temple Grandin. Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Orlando: Harvest Books, 2005.

Oliver Sacks. ‘An Anthropologist on Mars.’ In An Anthropologist on Mars (London: Picador, 1995), pp. 232-282.

The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, dir. Emma Sutton. UK, 2006. (Available on YouTube)

Temple Grandin, dir. Mick Jackson. USA 2009.




On an entirely separate note, Toby Manhire has written a very generous review of this blog for The Listener - you can read it here. I'll see you in two weeks.



Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Liveblogging the Apocalypse (6): The Triumph of Death


The meatblood colors and massed bodies, this is a census-taking of awful ways to die.

(Don DeLillo, Underworld)



The closest source may be the fresco that once stood in the courtyard of Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo, and was crudely lifted in four parts so that now in reproduction it looks like a poster showing the creases from where it was folded.


Death crashes a garden party, a skeleton riding a skeletal horse. It carries a scythe by its side but its weapon of choice for now is a bow and arrows. Take a moment to survey the scene. At the bottom you’ll find the already dead: emperors, popes, bishops and monks, the rulers of feudal Europe. The courtiers in the right side of the image are next in line, including the young man whose neck has just been pierced by Death’s arrow. Note the lute player who’s about to get trampled by Death’s horse, and the harpist by the fountain in the top right-hand corner of the fresco, who continue to play, and the courtiers who go on talking, indifferent to the catastrophe that is about to befall them, or possibly unaware. But note also, more heart-rendingly, the peasants on the left hand-side of the picture, whom Death appears to have left behind, and who are now begging the rider to turn around and give them their deliverance.


There is no reversal of fortune in the order in which people die, just a touch of cosmic irony: the powerful are the first to go, but their fate is not as tragic as that of the oppressed. Death too is a privilege, until the bitter end.

It has been speculated that when Pieter Bruegel travelled to Italy, in the early 1550s, he might have ventured as far as Palermo. There is no evidence for this other than the possible influence of that century-old Gothic fresco on his own Triumph of Death.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562. Click here to enlarge.

I visited Madrid with my family in 1983, and spent so long studying this painting that my sister bought me a print from the gift shop at the Prado. I have it still. It is a very good reproduction – its procedimiento oleográfico patentado genuinely giving it something of the texture of the original – and the fidelity of scale means you can really pore over the details, which is what fascinated me about Bruegel when I was a child. Those tiny, perfectly formed yet at the same time also cartoonish-looking human figures – so common in Flemish art but almost entirely unknown in our own, save for some minor medieval examples – struck me as so much more real than the flawless subjects of Italian Renaissance portraiture by Michelangelo and Leonardo, Piero della Francesca and Mantegna. That there might in fact be a shared lineage with the comics I consumed avidly at the time of my visit to Spain may be half-confirmed by Albert Uderzo’s lovely spoof of Bruegel’s Wedding Banquet in Asterix in Belgium. And perhaps there is something reminiscent of Where’s Wally? in The Fall of Icarus, or The Suicide of Saul.

But to look closely at The Triumph of Death is a different kind of experience altogether. There is nothing comic about this scene, little in fact to connect it with the fresco in Palermo, save for the central figure of the skeletal horse-riding reaper and the lone musician in the bottom right-hand side corner who won’t stop playing. And if the king whose life ebbs out in the span measured by his skeleton guardian on a hourglass is there to signify that Death will strike you no matter how powerful you are, this time there is no safety – however unwelcome – for the poorest among his subjects. Death is everywhere, from the cities that burn and the ships that sink in the far distance to the demons’ fortification that, in a ghastly presage, burns like a giant open air furnace. People are not merely dying: they are being exterminated.


As Perez Zagorin has documented, Bruegel’s life and works have been the subject over the centuries of intensely speculative interpretations matching his growing appreciation as one of the foremost European artists of his time. We know in fact very little about Bruegel’s life, and he left no writings or other clues that could furnish an intellectual background to his works. Geographer’s Abraham Ortelius’ inclusion of Bruegel in his liber amicorum, or book of friends, has been taken by some critics as sufficient proof that he belonged like Ortelius to the sect of the Family of Love, and that we ought therefore to scan his paintings in search of cryptic signs of this secret affiliation and of his political and religious apostasy. Even on his attitudes to the peasant class, one of his chief subjects, critics are evenly divided between those who think that he held it in satirical contempt or regarded it rather as worthy of sympathetic representation. To say nothing of Bruegel’s complex and as yet unsolved allegories, like The Parable of the Blind, or the works that require an elaborate key, like The Netherlandish Proverbs. I have touched upon some of the issues to do with the overinterpretation of hidden or semi-hidden details in Bruegel’s paintings in relation to the already mentioned Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – and it matters little that this work is no longer generally attributed to Bruegel, for it belongs to the history of his critical reception.

By contrast with most of Bruegel’s other major works, The Triumph of Death appears utterly transparent and uncomplicated. The theme itself had a long tradition in medieval art and had been treated in Bruegel’s lifetime by Hans Holbein in his book Les simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, a title rendered in English as ‘images and storied aspects of Death’ (with the lamentable loss of that most postmodern of words, simulacra). However Holbein’s prints, like the fresco in Palermo and the innumerable danses macabres that preceded them, are still overtly allegorical and symbolic, whereas in Bruegel – if an allegory is still to be found – what is most striking is the brutal, graphic realism of the scene. Every trace of stylised aestheticism is gone, and neither can the message of the painting be reduced to a comforting memento mori. We’re not merely reminded that everyone must die, but faced with the prospect of a gruesome, violent death, for everyone.


Writing in Renaissance Quarterly in 1968, Peter Thon advanced the possibility that The Triumph of Death might not have been painted in the early 1560s, as it was generally believed, but rather at the end of the decade, that is to say in the year preceding Bruegel’s death, and that it would refer therefore directly to the campaign of terror conducted in the Netherlands from 1568 by the Duke of Alva on behalf of King Philip II of Spain.
The Dance of Death figures in the foreground and the grim reaper on his pale horse in the middle of the picture establish the traditional connotations for the scene; but the bulk of details in the distance discloses Bruegel's undisguised vision of his land under Spanish tyranny, where men are hunted down like animals for their beliefs, hung, hoisted on the wheel, burned together at the stake, or decapitated singly, blindfolded and clutching the crucifix. The active participation of the skeletons in these bloody actions, and their massive attack on the helpless living throughout the picture reveal their true significance: the skeleton armies of death represent the Spanish soldiers and executioners. Their regime in the Netherlands is the Triumph of Death.

When Thon writes that ‘[i]t seems certain that the repressions of Hapsburg rule […] had a profound psychological effect on Bruegel’, it is hard not to regard it as an example of the kind of unsubstantiated inferences made about the artist’s beliefs that Zagorin cautions against. It should also be pointed out that Thon’s postdating of the painting isn’t reflected in the current catalogues, that still place it in 1562-63, before the repressive Spanish rule turned into all-out terror.

However, if in fact The Triumph of Death isn’t a coded allusion to a specific set of historical events, an impassioned and uncompromising j’accuse against the foreign rulers and their militias, then it’s even more terrifying. On a literal level, the painting is a catalogue of violent deaths: its hapless humanity is drowned, burned, hanged, beheaded, hoisted at the wheel, slit at the throat, trampled, stabbed, mauled by wild dogs or herded into a giant death trap. But if these aren’t references to actual atrocities, then they are not ways of dying: they are conditions of living. And therein lies a worse horror.


Thon is correct when he notes that Bruegel’s reinvention of the theme subverted its traditional Christian message. There are crosses everywhere in the painting, including on the death trap itself, as if to say that in this, the Protestant century, faith was not only powerless to preserve and give hope, but had become a symbol of despair itself. However the most striking and peculiar departure from the treatment of the triumph of death, as Thon also remarks, is the assault of the dead upon the living. Based on this feature alone we could say that Bruegel’s painting is one of history’s earliest horror films, but this is more than a generic convergence: that the image of an army of the undead should be formed just as modern Europe was being born has far deeper implications, chiefly on ideas of cultural continuity and history. Just as the Italian Renaissance was carefully drawing intellectual and artistic connections with the classical heritage of Southern Europe, so in the ravaged North the past materialised in the form of a murderous ghost phalanx intent on destroying not just progress, but the future itself.


After we returned from that trip to Spain I put the print up in my room for a while, before coming to the wise conclusion that it wasn’t a terribly healthy image to wake up to in the morning. But I kept it, and later on I took it all the way to New Zealand, where I keep it still, stashed away. These days of course anybody who has access to a computer can see the painting, tour an even more faithful high-resolution image – except it is backlit, like a projection slide, and it lacks the texture and the opacity, the little cracks that have appeared on my neglected print over time, as well as its lurking at the back of a wardrobe, like a story by Edgar Allan Poe that is half forgotten. I find the oddest comfort in all that, a sense of chilling familiarity and a reminder of how I learned to be afraid of fantasies.








Peter Thon. ‘The Triumph of Death Reconsidered.’ Renaissance Quarterly. Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 1968), pp. 289-299.

Perez Zagorin. ‘Looking for Pieter Bruegel.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 64, No. 1 (January, 2003), pp. 73-96.

Piero Bianconi (ed.). L'opera completa di Bruegel. Milano: Rizzoli, 1967.





Monday, July 4, 2011

This Is New Zealand - American Edition



Who is the bloke in the dark suit sitting opposite Bobby Muldoon?


The two leaders eye each other. They smile wryly, but do not speak. A large china vase could fall on their heads at any moment.

There is no caption, but the photograph must have been taken in June of 1981, when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon visited the United States, six months into Reagan’s presidency. Muldoon himself was to be re-elected later that year and receive the mandate to further his ‘Think Big’ response to the international energy crisis just as the price of oil reached an all time high. New Zealand needed American technology and capital for its infrastructure investments, and this is likely to have featured in the talks.

The photograph itself is less straightforward to read. The exchange of smiles is more guarded than it is cordial, and one is drawn to the differences: of physical stance, sartorial, of demeanour. Muldoon, ten years Reagan’s junior, looks the elder statesman; Reagan, the brasher one. But there is no mistaking which leader and whose country is the more powerful.

In 1982, the image was featured in the introduction of a book that documented and promoted the economic ties between the two nations. This one.


I’ve covered books like this one before – including one in this very series – but it bears repeating that you generally cannot buy them, but only receive them as gifts, typically in the context of a business trip or a trade fair. When as in this case they promote national interests, as opposed to a single company or industry sector, they never fail to establish an interesting and often telling ideological background. Making the case for why it is a good idea to trade with your country always requires that its national character be described first, along with the country’s principal attractions. So the promotional book ends up resembling an odd kind of tourist guide or history book, whose overarching message is: we can do business together.

And so the country’s social and historical backgrounder may include mention not only of its political stability, but also of the fact that it has never defaulted on a loan. Social conflict will be downplayed and unionism left unmentioned, while anything that suggests ideological commonality without prejudice to the business environment will likely be emphasised. Hence for instance the extensive section on the army museum at Waiouru, where we learn amongst other things that
probably no other nation has been so remote [as New Zealand] from world events, yet so involved in international wars and warfare.

Diorama with New Zealand soldiers in Korea at the Amy Museum in Waiouru

At Waiouru, where ‘war is not glorified’, but rather presented as ‘accurate record’, experientially, the museum is kept nonetheless ‘at an even 19° Celsius and the humidity at 50%’. This is ostensibly to preserve the artefacts, but the idea of the air-conditioned battlefield fits within the sanitisation of society and the economy operated by this book for the purpose of packaging New Zealand for foreign consumption. Thus for instance the contribution of the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Meat Company begins as follows:
The word slaughterhouse conjures up a rather gruesome image, but step into the processing department of a New Zealand meatworks and you'll be surprised at what you see.

In spite of the chains of carcasses being processed and readied for export, the pervasive atmosphere is a clinical whiteness: white caps, white washable aprons, white rubber overboots, white butchers' uniforms, tiles around the walls and flex stainless steel hand basins, stainless steel sterilisers for washing knives at 80°Centigrade after each processing operation.

In a country that exports meat to EEC and American markets, and whose inhabitants are among the most enthusiastic meat consumers in the world, hygiene is to be a number one priority. The whiteness and gleaming stainless steel ensure that the highest standards are maintained — standards that will satisfy countries who buy New Zealand meat.

What counts here is the image as much as the substance: the function of the whiteness and the gleaming stainless steel is as much to produce the correct perception amongst consumers as to ensure actual hygiene.

This clean, white image is a subtext to many of the books’ contributions, in which industry produces prosperity without any adverse effects on the wider society or the environment. With hindsight we may recoil especially at the entry paid for by Union Carbide, boasting the company’s pervasive yet understated presence in almost every sector of the New Zealand economy, including of course pest control in agriculture. But long before its own mother of all disasters, the Gulf oil spill, another company was at the forefront of this kind of obfuscation.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

The contribution by the New Zealand subsidiary of BP is the one that best articulates the view of globalisation espoused by the book, of capital flows in the service of industry and industry in the service of society, of transnational corporations whose local presence is always sensitive to the indigenous culture and its needs, whose interests are always consonant with if not secondary to those of the host nation. ‘A company that would employ New Zealanders to the maximum extent and generally identify itself with the country it serves’ – this was BP New Zealand, a corporation ostensibly not in the business of selling oil but of promoting alternative energies and conservation.

Between 1978 and 1980, BP New Zealand sponsored a conservation award, a public relations idea so inspired that it was turned into a global affair by its British HQ. The artwork on the award itself, inspired by Māori mythology and motifs, offers an exemplary image of the oil company that goes beyond petroleum and harnesses the sun itself,


while BP executive David Kendall, unique amongst the book’s contributors, appears in a family picture that is the epitome of clean and white.


In reality BP New Zealand’s business is an example of the puzzling diversification that characterises the mega-conglomerates of late stage capitalism, and includes a foray in ‘the promising field of salmon farming’. However outside of BP, Pfizer and Union Carbide, the roll of contributors/advertisers to the American Edition comprises companies that are decidedly less eclectic – such as Amalgamated Marketing Limited, exporters of beef, orange roughy and bull semen – or stick to a single knitting: growers, manufacturers, traders or insurers of things, companies that our grandmothers would recognise.

Compared to the Asian Edition – which was produced by the same publisher four years later, in the thick of the first round of neoliberal reforms under Roger Douglas – the domestic economy and its nexus of international trade as depicted by the American Edition appear therefore almost quaint, with finance and informatics playing a conspicuously subdued role. This, in spite of my copy of the book coming with the compliments of NCR (NZ), the local division of an American company that was poised to benefit from the taking over of banking and investment functions by digital networks, but that at this point could not even visualise the coming revolution except by slapping a circuit board onto a night time cityscape.


Nowhere else does this book appear more outdated than in that single image. But on a personal level this is also the New Zealand before my time, of my childhood lived elsewhere, a country that I cannot experience except through books and in conversation. Only I’ve found that people don’t talk about it very much, and when they do it is often to recall its drabness, its lack of sophistication and choice.

I regret to say that the American Edition does little to refute this image. It begins by enticing the reader to tour the country on a flaming beige Honda.


And proceeds through a series of dubious fashion statements and alarming portents of the prevailing food culture.

The recipe for toasted chicken requires that blue eye shadow be worn at all times.

Whether or not this apparent lack of style, this all too easily stereotyped Eastern Bloc-like patina (I swear there is an actual paragraph in praise of Ladas) was implicated in contemporary ideas about one’s proper place in society, and conversely whether the reforms that rewrote the social contract in the latter part of the eighties also propelled the country forward in terms of its taste for fashion, cuisine and the arts, as well as making it more tolerant of difference generally, is an interesting question, and on this count too people’s answers tend to vary. In the American Edition it all comes together, rather fittingly, in the section on the then recently inaugurated new seat of Government, the Beehive. This, unlike its Australian counterpart, is located in the centre of the capital, to be close to the people, and its interiors are designed to suit by order of the very ministry that was the guarantor of full employment.
New Zealand is an egalitarian society and the Beehive's decor reflects this. With the single exception of the ministerial area, the different dining rooms are furnished almost identically, conveying an atmosphere of equality deliberately aimed at by the design team from the Ministry of Works and Development.

Within this brief, what counts as sophistication is the three, count them, three shades of brown used in the carpeting (‘the coordinated colour scheme creates a restful, earthy effect reminiscent of the land on which the economy of this essentially farming nation rests’), or the fact that in the occasion of state banquets – when Canterbury lamb invariably ends up on the menu – the chef at Bellamy’s will ‘let his imagination run riot’ by serving it with something other than mint sauce.


I am rather incongruously fond of this New Zealand I never got to know, in spite of its obvious shortcomings, and remain very much interested in the question of how we can reclaim its egalitarian ethos and some of its attendant social policy goals without also restoring the conservatism that marked the Muldoon years, or the lack of vegetarian options and good coffee. But wholesale nostalgia is obviously misplaced, and the American Edition reminds us why when it gestures at those egalitarian aspirations to mask the lack of social and political imagination that preluded to the neoliberal turn.

There is one final thing to note: the American Edition may be the only illustrated book about New Zealand in history not to include the image of a rugby field. It’s not even that sports are wholly absent – lawn bowls, mountaineering and sailing are amongst those featured. Perhaps it’s that to speak of rugby in 1982 without mentioning the Springbok Tour of ‘81 would have been awkward, and the authors wanted to avoid the association. I can only speculate. Be that as it may, what makes books of this sort valuable documents of their time are also the omissions, wilful or otherwise. It’s not the history is wholly absent, it’s that it’s selectively recalled. It’s history in the service of industry and commerce. And that’s far from the least interesting kind.






This Is New Zealand - American Edition. Sheffield House: Wellington, 1982.

Also in this series:
This Is New Zealand - Asian Edition
Reshaping the Invisible



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