Monday, July 26, 2010

Six Inches to a Mile

We must learn those new names. We must learn where we live. We must learn to make them our own. We must make them our new home.

(Brian Friel, Translations)

Whanganui. Redirected from Wanganui.


Not all of my regular readers have connections to New Zealand, and I wonder what they would make of the fact that a local Mayor responded to calls by the national geographic board to fix the spelling of his town’s name as a ‘racist decision’. How quickly would they unwrap that one, I wonder? Could Whanganui happen elsewhere?

The answer to the last question is yes, of course. In fact throughout this eighteen-month-long furore I’ve been often reminded that my first encounter with the idea of toponomy as an instrument of colonisation dates back to before my time in New Zealand. I picked up a copy of Brian Friel’s play Translations in Edinburgh in 1992 or 1993, during a holiday. I think I was attracted at first by the brilliant device of having characters that all speak English on stage not understand each other, because in the diegesis most of the English actually stands in for the Gaelic spoken in the 1830s, at the time when the play is set. This culminates in the scene between Maire and Yolland, the Irish villager and the English soldier, each trying in vain to speak the language of the other, whilst resulting perfectly intelligible to the audience. In the end it is Yolland who breaks the barrier with a wooing speech consisting entirely of the recitation of local place names – the names that along with the rest of his detachment of Royal Engineers he had been put in charge of anglicising. I have never seen the play performed, but it’s a scene that has stayed with me.

The result of that survey was a map scaled at six inches to a mile, with the vast majority of the toponyms either anglicised (Dùn Na Gall = Donegal) or translated altogether. It was work carried out by soldiers, as if to highlight that mapping the land means taking ownership of it, and so does naming its features. In her Odyssey of Captain Cook, Christchurch artist Marian Maguire illustrates this point in a New Zealand context in an etching entitled 'The Map of the Coast of New Ithaca'. This is a standard Cook-era map of New Zealand, except Odysseus as coloniser has transplanted onto the coast of the new found land the sites of his Mediterranean adventures (visitors to the Bay of Islands in particular may want to watch out for Scylla). There is a strangeness, an out-of-placeness about this textual information – Taranaki is now Mount Zeus, and so forth – that calls attention to the literally far-fetched origins of so many of our actual geographical names, beginning most obviously with Zealand itself, which is what we’re purportedly making new. What Maguire also does here is to highlight the narrative nature of maps, the fact that they tell stories – stories that those of us who have the requisite knowledge of Māori lore and colonial history can retrace and retell.

Group portrait of six government surveyors, photographed in May 1868 by Wrigglesworth and Binns in Wellington (detail). From Timeframes.

But even when naming consists of writing down designations that were previously only spoken, as in the case of New Zealand places that retained their Māori names, it’s still intrinsically colonial in nature. From here to here will henceforth be known as Manawatu. Taranaki welcomes you; Taranaki farewells you. You are now entering the Waikato. None of these binary demarcations existed in pre-colonial New Zealand. Nor did private property, of course, or the concept of a parcel of land. Writes Gyselle M. Byrnes:
Land surveying was fundamental to the European acquisition of territory and to the creation of new definitions of space and place. The work of colonial land surveyors reflects much that is central to the European history of New Zealand, particularly the transformation and domestication of the natural environment. Although physically located on the margins of the settler society, surveyors occupied a central role in implementing the principles of colonisation on the ground, operating (quite literally) at the ‘cutting edge’ of colonisation. Given this colonising agenda, it is not surprising that [the diary of surveyor Thomas Kingwell Skinner] projects a strong mercantilist vision, where the landscape is seen with the eyes of the future. ‘We have indeed come to a land flowing with milk and honey—a land wherein there is no want’, he noted in his diary on first inspection of the Taranaki hinterland. ‘The valleys are particularly rich,’ he continued, ‘and this is the best land you can find’.

I’ll come back to this mercantile aspect in a minute. First I need to explain Whanganui to my kind foreign readers. It is a town in central region of the North Island of New Zealand, see. And since its origins it was named Wanganui, from the Māori name of the river that flows through it, and this state of affairs continued until the early Nineties, when calls were successfully made to add an aitch to the name of the river to restore its etymological - as opposed to phonological - integrity (for Māori in this area, unlike in the rest of the country, w and wh have identical pronunciations). When local Māori called for the same correction to be applied to the city, the Council put it to a non-binding referendum, in which the name-change was soundly defeated. And when the Geographic Board went ahead and recommended the change to the Government anyway, the local Mayor, who also happens to be a radio talk-show host, called it a racist decision.

All this for the sake a silent aitch, you say? To illustrate the actual import of these matters to outsiders, one should further explain what the Waitangi Tribunal is, and how its righting of colonial wrongs takes the form not only of land restitutions and financial compensation, but also of cultural interventions based on historical and ethnographic research. For instance ‘[o]ne settlement with South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu specified 96 place name alterations,’ explains Te Ara. And with these forms of redress comes the simmering resentment that has made Whanganui something of a flashpoint and a shorthand for this particular aspect of race relations in New Zealand.

And it’s not just Whanganui. The Rimutaka hill, near Wellington, has recently been in the news when it was put forward that it should really be called Remutaka, and that its etymology has nothing to do with the tree known as rimu. Again, the historical lines are clear and it would appear to be a fairly straightforward business, but the local reaction has been heated. Featherston local and former South Wairarapa District councillor John Tenquist, for one, called the proposal ‘ludicrous’ and declared:
What is wrong with the way it is? Once again we are pandering to a minority. We have some European heritage in this country and, rightly or wrongly, it has been Rimutaka for over 150 years, so if it ain't broken, don't fix it.

This is not an untypical rhetorical stance of the post-colonialists, lambasting the PC sensitivities of the minority while at the same time revealing an even greater sensibility to matters such as the inalienable right of their forebears to get Māori names wrong. Meanwhile up Howick’s way, in the redesign of Auckland’s districts in light of the advent of the Super City, it was suggested that – without renaming the suburb itself – the local administrative body could take the historically meaningful indigenous name of Te Irirangi, but that measure too was shot down by means of a virulent local campaign featuring the always unpleasant sight of a triumphant Maurice Williamson, MP. And when Brian Rudman wrote a critical piece on the decision for the The New Zealand Herald, this was one of the responses he got.
Rock (Onehunga)
01:34PM Wednesday, 21 Apr 2010
Let's remove the rascist (sic) hysteria that Brian Edmonds' (sic) loves to create and look at the truth of the matter. Money.

The average house price in what is currently Te Irirangi (Otara/East Tamaki) is about $265,000. The average price of a house in Howick is about $550,000. Why would anyone want to have their property associated with one of the cheapest housing area's (sic) in Auckland?

How's that going to help improve the value of their properties? It seems more of a case of trying to up the average house price in the Otara/East Tamaki ward by associating it with the Eastern Bays ward. Much to the detriment of the Eastern Bays residents who are labelled racists when they object.

This is quite a brilliant gambit, I think you’ll agree: reading property values into place names and the boundaries between them creates a straight, direct connection to the old surveyors, and those imperial maps that allowed to establish and then police private property. In the case of the Irish survey of 1833, the exercise was already presented as a form of colonial redress, as Friel tells us by including in the play the relevant passage of the ordnance:
All former surveys of Ireland originated in the forfeiture and violent transfer of property; the present survey has as its object the relief which can be afforded to the proprietors and occupiers of land from unequal taxation.

Conservatives at most latitudes understand this: that if you seize land illegally you might some day have to give it back, or pay something close to its fair price. It may well be that shared commitment to the defence of property that has allowed the remarkable bi-partisan support to the establishment and continuing operation of the Waitangi Tribunal. But it’s the Tribunal’s other function, to provide the means for ongoing cultural and even semiotic redress, that creates arguably the most friction, and the simmering unease that I have endeavoured to describe; that worries conservatives, who fear the unsettlingly vague, open-ended nature of the process, the lack of a statute on limitations on Pākehā guilt; and it’s that function that should give heart to the rest of us, in that it provides a framework for ongoing cultural and linguistic negotiations, for remappings that seek to mend not just our geography, but also our history.

In Friel’s play, it is Yolland, the English soldier, who voices his doubts to Owen, the eager translator (and businessman): that what they are doing is an eviction of sorts, and that in rectifying and standardising those places names, even the ones that over time have become riddled with confusion, ‘something is being eroded’. The need to have a Māori language week reminds us of the extent of that erosion, and that even when faced with the ongoing emergency of a language in peril, every little gesture counts – even for the sake of a silent aitch.

Henry Claylands: Sketch map of the coast from Whanganui to Manawa pou, 1864. From Timeframes.

Brian Friel. Translations. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.
Giselle M. Byrnes. ‘Texted pasts’—the sources of colonial land surveying. Kōtare 1998, Vol I, Nr. 1.
Marian Maguire. The Odyssey of Captain Cook. Christchurch: Papergraphica, 2005.

I stumbled upon this video of a class of Spanish speaking English learners rehearsing a scene of Translations and it seemed worth including it.
This is a good resource on the historical context of Friel's play.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Useful Life

(The first in a series of posts about Toy Story 3. I’ve kept the spoilers to a review-standard minimum for this one.)

There is a dream sequence in the second Toy Story in which Sheriff Woody is tossed aside by Andy, the boy who owns him, and plunges through the floor and a vast expanse of darkness into a garbage bin. It is one of the rare moments in the first two instalments of the Pixar trilogy when a toy expresses the fear not of being lost, or sold into another family, or stolen to be displayed in a museum, but of actual annihilation. Except there is the issue of what death would even look like for these creatures. You could imagine Woody slowly rotting and moulding in a trash pile, but what of his all-plastic companions? For how much longer would they survive amongst the garbage, and at what point would consciousness finally seep out of their non-biodegradable shells?

This may all seem rather morbid, but Toy Story 3 steps up the existential questions posed in the first two chapters and gives them that much urgency, that much brooding poignancy. The theme of death by garbage disposal makes another appearance, too, and in an extended sequence of pure high cinema the filmmakers even show us the resignation and terror of a group of toys about to meet their unmaking. Things get that serious, and invite us to give equally serious consideration to those recurring dilemmas: what is the proper life of an object of play? If they did have desires, aspirations and fears, what would those be?

Of course the toys aren’t really toys, they are allegorical figurines that we are supposed to read human meanings into, but I want to try to be literal for a moment. There is one irrefutable truth that we learn through the films about the toys’ psychology, one trait that all of them except a pair of scarred deviants – Stinky Pete and Lotso – have in common: what they like best is to be played with by children. But it so happens that at those times they are limp and inanimate; as is the case whenever they are in the presence of people, their spark abandons them, their eyes become vacant – a point that is further underscored in Toy Story 3 by the otherwise extraordinary capacity for expression of those eyes. So what the toys derive the most pleasure from is also what flicks their off switch, reverting them to the base status of mass produced consumer objects: every Sheriff Woody, every Buzz Lightyear totally identical to any other, therefore totally interchangeable, Andy’s marker-pen branding notwithstanding.

There are shades here of Thomas’ oft-repeated wish to become a ‘very useful engine’, or the ghastly compliance of Collodi’s Pinocchio as reinvented by Walt Disney (on which more in a future instalment). But there also shades of the happy worker who – as you might recall – also cultivated elaborate illusions of individuality and irreplaceability, whilst appearing, or wishing to appear, to take pleasure in the performance of its stated function.

What the Toy Story trilogy is about, then, alongside more overt themes like the end of childhood, is instrumentality, or the human use of human beings: so not only labour and property relations and various notions regarding the role and duties of the individual within society, but also who is allowed to be happy, and how, and for how long. Mediated as it is by the most emotionally charged of commodity fetishes, our childhood toys – at least until somebody comes up with a visually and narratively satisfactory way to anthropomorphise Apple-branded gadgets – it's a treatment that could hardly fail to brood over the alienation and the inexorable churn of it all, whereby things and people are declared outdated before they are ready to move on, outmoded whilst they still have the energy, the capacity and the desire to contribute.

This core theme, which was presented very forcefully from the trilogy’s outset, has become progressively darker, and so whilst in earlier films being made redundant meant having to leave the community of Andy’s toys by the relatively benign route of a yard sale, in the third Toy Story when you cease to be useful, you die.

All the reviews that you’ve read weren’t wrong to describe Sunnyside Daycare as a prison, but some might not have mentioned that it is also a concentration camp, however much the screenplay chooses to understate the analogy. Yet even if you take your mind off that particular association, you’ll be struck by the cruel twist: it is precisely being played with, that most pleasurable of things, that becomes deadly if carried out outside the toys’ specifications, age-inappropriately. Thus work, a source of libidinal fulfilment in the quasi-utopian workplace that was Andy’s room – barring its lay offs in the form of chilling selections – becomes truly inhuman, a thing to be survived.

(And here, thinking of those eyes, and possibly taking things too far, I am reminded of my mother’s description of her best friend when, as a teenager, she would return from a full-day shift in the rice fields, her stare made vacant by sheer exhaustion.)

I must at this point clarify one thing: I loved Toy Story 3. It is immensely entertaining and clever, genuinely moving (as a friend put it, it got very dusty in that theatre towards the end) and made with unerring dedication to the story and its characters. Yet it is impossible not to balk at the extent in which virtually every aspect of its production undercuts its message. This of course has always been true: the runaway success of the Buzz Lightyear merchandising was as much an ironic fulfilment of Woody’s fears in the original Toy Story as the depletion of clownfish following its release made a tragic mockery of Finding Nemo. But just as Toy Story 3 is the most staggeringly ambitious film in the trilogy, so too is the merchandising effort at its most soul-crushing, culminating in the creation by Thinkway of a brand new line of replica toys. Here’s Pixar supremo John Lasseter, from a promotional video on Disney Living:

As we started approaching Toy Story 3, […] I kept thinking of the Toy Story toys that are out there, and said: ‘We can do better’. The idea that we had was: ‘We need to make the exact, authentic toys that Andy always played with.’ Nobody had ever done that before, until now. And so in front of me here are the exact toys and they’re beautifully made. Thinkway Toys has done an incredible job, and what is really cool is the packaging. Now you’re going to have to do what I do: not buy one, but buy two, one to keep in the package and one to open up and play with. Anyway if you look at the packaging, it’s exactly how Andy would have bought it at the store – it is just fantastic. But the other cool thing about these toys is that they have kind of two modes: there’s the toy mode and then the toys come alive. And when the toys come alive, it’s something to see… They really feel like they have a life of their own. And so I think you have to get the whole collection. That’s what I would do – that’s what I’m going to do.

It’s hard to know where to start recoiling here: if at the notion that we should buy two of each toy – is Lasseter here channelling the collector villain from Toy Story 2? – or the creepy fetishism concerning the packaging, or the idea of the second mode, in which the toys come alive, which swiftly and brutally undoes the magic and the mystery of the toys having a separate existence when you’re not in the room. But I’ll settle for the exactness of the replicas. In the case of Woody, for instance, Lasseter explains that the toy’s face was modelled based on the ‘exact data’ from the original 3D models. (Data which, ironically enough, had degraded to the point of not being available for reuse on the film itself.) And what is this obsessive precision, this faithfulness to the real thing – which was never real in the first place – at the service of, if not doing all the work of the imagination on behalf of the child?

It’s as if the filmmakers were serving us here with a legal notice: the only authorised fantasies concerning these characters are theirs and theirs alone. And indeed the troubled genesis of the film hinged on the ownership of the idea: when Disney and Pixar were negotiating the renewal of their relationship and Pixar seemed ready to break off, Disney made known their intention to produce Toy Story 3 themselves, and even created a studio for it called Circle 7. It was the most extraordinary of negotiating strategies, the threat of ruining a good yarn. But it worked: as writer Jim Herzfeld put it: ‘It was essentially [then Disney CEO] Michael Eisner putting a gun to the head of Pixar's children’. And it brought Pixar back to the negotiating table.

All this information is not any more extraneous to Toy Story 3 than the replica toys are, for it defines its conditions of possibility – including the $200 million budget – along thematic fissures that are explored by the film itself. And I’ll finish for today with a concrete example of what I mean. The real Woody toy, as Lasseter himself has clarified, is supposed to be a hand-me-down bought for Andy’s father in the 1950s, when it would almost certainly have been manufactured in the United States. But apparently they couldn’t bring themselves to take exactness that far, and the Thinkway Toys replica, as we learn at the very end of its otherwise lyrical description, is 'imported'. In that one word, that doesn’t even dignify this country of origin with its proper name, we are forced to read so much against the grain of this extraordinary film: about the global entertainment industry, about work, about the undoubtedly less useful lives of others.

(Go to part 2)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Writing Elsewhere

Following my trip back to the Sarrià of a month or so ago I was invited by Mark Fisher to join the UK-based World Cup blog Minus the Shooting. It’s been fun to write for a different forum and without some of the constraints I’ve imposed on myself over here, but mostly I’ve enjoyed the excellent company. In print publishing as in the academic humanities, practitioners are actively discouraged from working in groups, and my failure to meaningfully link up with other researchers - as opposed to just quote from their work - was one of the things I came to regret most keenly about my PhD. Blogs have a refreshingly different approach to authoriety and allow other options than just stamping your individual, true name on things, but my personal approach isn’t all that fresh, and whilst I’m a regular consumer of multi-authored blogs, I had never been part of one before.

It’s not like we’ve had editorial meetings or anything, but the simple act of working alongside others, of writing concurrently in the same space, can put into sharper focus the experience of like-mindedness that is common to many ordinary Web encounters. So for instance it’s not so much that I would like to have been the person who wrote about The Strange Persistence of Robert Green in the Memory (that would be Zone_Styx), or who relived the World Cup of 94 (Fat and Blood), but rather that I can see my own sensibility reflected in those pieces, and enjoy being part of that conversation. I’m keen to work on creating more opportunities for this sort of commonality - hopefully there will be an announcement soon, here and elsewhere - but in the meantime I’m going to borrow for this week’s offering a couple of short pieces I wrote over there, since they also fit in with some of the ongoing strands of this blog.


Midway through the first half of the first-round game between Switzerland and Spain, this happened.

When I was five or six years old sometimes with my mates we used to mark a goal - with sweaters or what have you - grab a ball and somebody would yell tutti contro tutti!, 'everyone against everyone'. I remember this call to arms very well, but quite frankly I don’t recall what happened after that. A melee of some kind, presumably. How do you even play football without someone to pass the ball to? Were instant alliances formed and broken on the field, so that a subset of the mob could get closer to scoring a goal? Did we even have a goal to aim at, or is that part of the memory spurious? Perhaps we just dribbled aimlessly, enjoying the inevitable collisions. I couldn’t say. I doubt that as a practice it lasted very long, we must quickly have switched to selecting the two fellows who would take turns picking players so we could get started with a proper game in short order. This I remember very well. It was done quickly because, especially during the morning break at primary school, each moment was precious, and every second that wasn’t spent playing football, wasted. And we kept score, unfailingly, I’m sure of that, although, since the make-up of the teams changed from day to day, it was only the personal stats that carried over.

I remember the first time we played against a team wearing a proper football kit. We must have been eight or nine years old, and they were kids from the area (but not from our school, I think) sponsored by the local pizzeria. They beat us nine to one. I’ll always maintain that they beat us because they had proper shirts. We were just intimidated by that. Some time later they agreed to play us again and this time we won by a goal. We had had a talk in advance about tactics and what we should do, and we remarked that their superior equipment wasn’t a reflection on their skills, or ours.

What is it that is so powerful about shirts, about the team’s colours? I used to think that it was a primal instinct, hardwired into us boys especially – my memories of kindergarten all revolve around belonging to a gang, and each gang had its own colour, matching the colours of the rooms at the school. (We didn’t actually wear those colours or anything like that, it was more of a symbolic thing.) But what about tutti contro tutti, then? Where does that fit in, where did it come from?

Gangs of adults form around professional football teams at all levels, each swearing to defend those blessed colours. Footballers become simulacra, heroic figures for as long as they wear the correctly coloured shirt. When national teams are involved, they even make you swear allegiance before each game, when you line up for the anthems. And us supporters at home or at the stadium quietly do the same - each siding with the team from our own country because it is the obvious, the natural, the non-dickish thing to do.

What intrigues me about the image above is that it that it makes it look as if Swiss central defender Philippe Senderos had somehow forgotten in a moment of folly that most fundamental rule of the game - it is us versus them, the white shirts versus the red shirts - and had tackled his team-mate on purpose, like in one of those Hobbesian childhood games of ours, where all that mattered was to gain temporary possession of the ball. Of course, it’s not really what happened, the full replay shows that the two defenders were both going for the same ball, and Senderos was quite oblivious of Stephan Lichststeiner’s run. Nothing to do with Senderos being half-Spanish, either, which was one of the insipid storylines on the eve of the game. It was just an accident.

You couldn’t even imagine what everyone against everyone would look like, with adult footballers, in a visual cacophony of differently coloured shirts, could you? Except I suspect it would make a good commercial.

The Game Never Ends

Speaking of commercials, one of the side stories of South Africa 2010 has been the early exit of most of the Nike stars, the chaps who were supposed to write the future. I actually didn't think that the campaign was has abhorrent as it has been made out to be. There was more than a little cheek in Ronaldo's dream of a colossal bronze statue to match the size of his ego and the sculpted iconicity of his Mussolinesque pout, and you wouldn't put it past that character to spit at a cameraman on his way out of the tournament if things didn't go to plan. It was always going to be either the triumph of the will or the fall of the ungracious.

The ad starring Cannavaro was genuinely funny, chiefly thanks to the brilliantly cast Bobby Solo, but I was intrigued by the extended version of Rooney's story, the only one to write in the prospect of failure. In this one the two alternative finales - with Roo either ending up living in a trailer park or bear-hugging the Queen and having all male boys of the realm named after him - was refreshingly open to the possibility that the future would be written (at least in part - digitalben had something to say about this) by the non-Nike-wearing anonymous player mob. I felt that you could do something with that, that it wasn't as tightly controlled and depressingly closed a text as most sports ads are at this level.

Not even hitching its wagon almost as an afterthought to Robinho'star allowed the Nike team to make it as fas as the semifinals. But by far the more emblematic tagline of the tournament to my mind belongs to this commercial.

Having resolved to catch all the fixtures of this World Cup if I could, I was reminded that there is a certain amount of labour involved in watching sport, let alone playing it, and this drudgery is captured here in a formulation that is a concise as it is soul-crushing: The Game Never Ends. And: Keep Playing. Moreover, it applies not only to professional footballers, but to the rest of us as well, who are left with no choice but to embrace that philosophy of sacrifice, that commitment to ever-lasting effort, even in our streets, in our parks, on our beaches. No more of that old “that’s it for me, I think I’ll be heading home” business. The game never ends.

Panning cleverly from one country and one culture to the next, the Powerade commercial paints a vivid picture of global joylessness. It is not so much the other side of top sporting events as it is integral, central to it; it is the very serious business of competing, which is the thing that sport has in common with the corporate world. Obvious as it is to remark, that’s why you’ll find motivational management strategies used in sports teams, and ‘team-building’ exercises and a whole host of sports metaphors, gestures and tics featuring prominently in the workplace. For capitalism to reach maximum efficiency, it is necessary that leisure and work be as indistinguishable as the transition between the two is seamless. Work is play, and play is work.

At the end of the recent, extraordinary 11-hour tennis match between John Isner and Nicholas Mahut, the Wimbledon crowd reportedly started chanting: “We Want More! We Want More!” They were literally asking that the game never end, that it become a substitute of life not just in spite of but in fact because of its failure to produce an outcome, a moment of resolution, somebody’s joy and somebody else’s pain. They just wanted it to be played more, to last longer. This put gladiatorial expectations on Isner and Mahut, the two people doing the toiling; their exhaustion-cum-pain became the thing that the audience fed off of. But it also made being part of that audience something of a mass endurance event.

I get why we are supposed to sneer at the Nike ads and at the cult of personality turned into commodity that they represent, to say nothing of the impoverished social relations and the brutal labour conditions that they conceal. But as we watch the stars of the tournament be eliminated one by one, to make room for the teams that play a better system, make more efficient use of their resources and boast greater productivity, the image of the player of South Africa 2010 becomes the race- and culture-morphing athlete who just won’t stop running of the Powerade commercial. He doesn’t care about winning. He has no dreams, no identity, no history. He just wants to keep playing, and for you to keep watching.