Monday, December 19, 2011

Tītokowaru's Dilemma

This is a question to you. To whom does England belong? To whom does this upon which you stand belong?

(Riwha Tītokowaru)

Socrates and Tītokowaru sit together in a forest, tending a campfire with long sticks. Behind them, the profile of Mount Taranaki. It’s an incongruous, anachronistic meeting, drawn in an incongruous, anachronistic mixture of styles. Red-figure Attic vase painting for the human figures and the campfire, minutely detailed nineteenth century print for the lush native bush, and a more stylised, minimalist sketch for the mountain in the background. The title of the piece, reproduced in small block letters underneath the two men, is Socrates and Tītokowaru discuss the question, ‘What is Virtue?’, and it begs another question: in what language?

click here to view in detail
The language in which the title itself is written belongs to a third, absent figure, that of the coloniser, which asserts itself implicitly also in the iconographic source of the painterly landscape. But its absent presence consists mainly of this: that a meeting between the Greek philosopher Socrates (who was also a warrior) and the Māori warrior Tītokowaru (who was also a philosopher) couldn’t be but a colonial fantasy, a case of Western culture producing a fanciful analogy thanks to its capacity to reference a wide range of other, past cultures, and put them in relation to one another. Hence the potentially problematic ground occupied by this image as art that translates indigenous experience into an archaic foreign language, or, in the crudest of simplifications, Pākehā art, or art that speaks primarily to a white audience. I want to talk about some of the problems I see in this view.

Christchurch printmaker Marian Maguire began her journey of rediscovery of colonial Aotearoa/New Zealand through ancient Greek narratives and artforms in The Odyssey of Captain Cook (2005), followed in 2008 by The Labours of Herakles. In both series it was the outsider – first the explorer, then the settler – who ostensibly underwent the transformation into poetic or mythical figure, but in fact it was the land itself, along with its first inhabitants, that became a hybrid Arcadia, in a continual inversion and mixing of the roles. From the relatively straightforward encounter of the Odyssey’s Ko wai koe (who are you?), pitching a two-dimensional Attic warrior opposite a Māori man fashioned after de Sainson’s drawing of the chief Ngatai, Maguire gave us Herakles discusses Boundary Issues with the Neighbours, in which it was Herakles’ turn to assume the semblance and pictorial form of Ngatai, while the indigenous warrior took on the Grecian form. The land went through many more transformations, from theatre of classical ruin to pastoral idyll to place of magic and foreboding, with levels of botanical detail ranging accordingly from the exquisite to the stylised, and back again.

If the novelty of the Odyssey lithographs turned into the maturity and deft humour of the lithographs and etchings of Herakles, Tītokowaru’s Dilemma presented Maguire with a greater challenge, that of representing no longer an encounter, a coming together – however fraught – of distant cultures, but rather the conflict and trauma of the land wars and the betrayal of the covenant established by the Treaty. Tītokowaru was an inspired but equally challenging choice as the lead character. His is a complex, long-misunderstood and still in several respects enigmatic figure: not an indomitable warrior whose eventual defeat could be romanticised and offered as a comforting colonial narrative, but rather a political and spiritual leader thrown into the role of general, cornered into waging a war that was as cunning as it was desperate; then, having attained a position of true strength, Tītokowaru inexplicably relinquished his command, abandoned his encampment at Tauranga-ika and retreated north, for reasons that are still unclear – although the most credited theory is that he had an illicit relationship with the wife of a subordinate, which caused him to lose his mana – yet remained an influential figure and continued to preach peace mixed with actions of protest and defiance for many years, notably through his involvement with the movement associated with the settlement of Parihaka.

Tītokowaru is thus an emblematic figure of the impossibility of not only waging war, but also making peace with the coloniser. That Maguire manages to give visual shape – albeit by necessity in abbreviated form – to the historical events that marked Tītokowaru’s life is impressive enough. But the series, consisting of twelve lithographs and the two sets of etchings entitled Colonial Encounters and A Taranaki Dialogue, accounts primarily for Tītokowaru as the man caught in this unsolvable bind, as the leader doomed to defeat but not to failure, and for his land and times.

click here to view in detail
In The Indiscretion Vase, Discovered at Tauranga-ika Pa (abandoned 1869), above, we find a compendium of the series’ strongest themes. In the embrace between the two totemic figures, the seduction and eroticism that Maguire explores fully in Colonial Encounters; in the abandoned pā, the nocturnal setting and the crack running through the amphora, a sense of loss mixed with contemplation; an uncanny serenity.

Finally, after having spent some time with Te Whiti, weighing in the manner of Socrates the subject of peace, in the last lithograph of the set Tītokowaru returns, possibly in death, as a menacing carving moulded in the very body of the vase, presiding over, guarding the land painted beneath his one-eyed gaze (the result of a battle wound). Written on the base, in minute letters that can barely be made out, a question that Tītokowaru had addressed to George Whitmore, the colonel in charge of the colonial troops in Taranaki, but that has not lost any of its force or meaning to this day: ‘To whom does this upon which you stand belong?’

Curio from the Colonial Era. Artisan unknown. Dated 1860-1880. Taranaki origin. Click here to view in detail.
Dominion over the land has of course symbolic and discursive dimensions besides the literal one. What does it mean to belong, or to possess? The question reframes the relationship I hinted at earlier between the Pākehā artist or writer (the two main chroniclers of Tītokowaru’s life story thus far have been James Belich and Maurice Shadbolt) and the Māori subject, and that Maguire presents in one of the essay that accompanies the series as her own dilemma (‘it was a hard decision to make my central character a North Island Māori of great mana, when I am a female printmaker from the south, a Pākehā’). It is a relationship that remains problematic until such a point as the subject is allowed to do some of his own writing and produce some of his own meanings, a process made possible by the richness of the work and its stubborn refusal to produce univocal directional readings.

The pairings and substitutions in Maguire’s trilogy cumulatively produce an effect that goes beyond estrangement, beyond making the viewer look at colonisation with different eyes: they question the direction of the colonial gaze itself. In another essay, Anne Salmond explains that Māori culture contemplated questions such as whether to pursue war or peace in the pae, that is to say
the horizon or edge between worlds – te ao mārama, the world of light and life inhabited by people, and te pō, the realm of darkness and death, inhabited by ancestors and atua (gods).
Salmond’s claim that Maguire’s work ‘gives artistic expression to the pae’ produces an interpretation that reframes the work from a Māori perspective and gives it indigenous meaning, setting in motion a reversing of the relationships – such as the one of primacy – that would structure a reading informed by Western culture, and showing te ao Māori, the Māori worldview, as being as capable of embracing the ancient Greek worldview or the British colonial worldview or the contemporary Pākehā worldview as they are to embrace it.


This is my last post for the year and I must cite as a personal highlight of 2011 the opportunity to write an essay to accompany Tītokowaru, which came after a review of Herakles I posted here in late 2009. Being published alongside those works, and the writings of some pretty special people, was a great reward for the work of blogging, as was the chance to visit Marian in Christchurch and see her studio and her gallery.

Tītokowaru was three years in the making, and opened at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui while Herakles was still showing at Te Manawa, in Palmertson North. There might be auspices to be read in the criss-crossing paths of the touring exhibitions as well, if one were so inclined. But visiting Christchurch in late 2011 meant seeing other ruins, and hearing of other traumas, the effects of which could scarcely be expected not to be etched into the stones on which Marian works, as she has acknowledged. The thin crack running down the length of The indiscretion Vase suddenly opens up to other readings, as does the upheaval of colonisation, as do the meanings one reads in the landscape – which never exists independently of culture or history, in a purely natural state.

That visit too, the good and the bad, was a highlight of the year, and all of the people I knew there I came across through some form of online writing, and so it seems fitting to mention it at this time. Thank you all for reading and see you after the break.

Tītokowaru's Dilemma is showing at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui until February 12 (thereafter check the exhibition link). The Labours of Herakles is at Te Manawa in Palmerston North until January 29 and then will travel to Tauranga and to the Waikato Museum.

The quotations in the post are from the'Across the Pae - Sex, war and peace in Taranaki' by Anne Salmond and 'An Artist's Dilemma' by Marian Maguire, both in the exhibition catalogue.

Oh, and speaking of highlights of the year, this

Monday, December 12, 2011

You and Mark Aren't Friends

Timeline is the story of your life.

(Mark Zuckerberg)

Nine beef consommés, one iced cucumber soup, one mussel soup…

(Georges Perec, 'Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Ninteen Hundred and Seventy-Four')

As of last week, New Zealand is again the site of an experiment. I’m not sure why Facebook decided to launch Timeline here, four months after Mark Zuckerberg first introduced it to the media. I guess we’re a relatively small control group, and we speak English, which is nice. We’re also marginal enough to be unlikely to become an international centre of outrage, as it so often the case with the company’s innovations once it becomes clear that they are the place where your privacy goes to die.

This is not literally the case with Timeline, at least not since a couple of notable problems were rectified. However what the profile does is to fundamentally reorganise your information and make it vastly more searchable, albeit by the same people whom you have given permission to view the information in the first place. This is no small difference. Previously Facebook worked as a diary that couldn’t be browsed except by turning its pages backwards one by one, in an extremely laborious and time-consuming manner, meaning that for all intents and purposes your old data wouldn’t be accessible except by somebody who took an inordinate amount of interest in it. Now Timeline places the things you have shared with Facebook along a chronological axis that can be navigated quickly and intuitively, allowing users to, say, jump back to somebody’s life in 2008, or view all the information they have put up in a particular category over time.

The easiest way to make sense of the change is to understand that your Facebook profile is henceforth no longer your (public) diary: it’s your biography. To underscore this point, Facebook invites you now to fill in the time before you joined the site. Consider my timeline:

The time between ‘born’ – that’s 1971, folks – and late 2008, when I joined Facebook, is currently blank, but I could fill it by uploading and dating photos from my childhood, or creating announcements and events to mark key moments in my life, say, my high school graduation, or the time I moved to New Zealand. Facebook would like me to do that very much. That’s not just because the more information they have about me, the more valuable their product becomes to their advertisers, but also, and on balance I suspect more importantly, because the more emotionally invested I become in their product, the deeper my engagement with it is likely to grow. Google+ has millions of users, yet nobody uses it. Facebook is used daily even by some of its most ardent critics. It’s always been its paradox.

The current promotional video for Timeline features a studiously ordinary subject. American, white, male, professional, married, one child: the typical default person that technology products and the contemporary way of life are marketed to and through. The montage technique used in the video sutures the conventional style of presentation of such lives in cinema and especially advertising with the design of Timeline itself, which becomes therefore the film of you, the multimedia portfolio/cv of who you are (bearing in mind once again that in the current zeitgeist the personal is the professional, and vice versa).

The chap in the video, Andy Sparks, is listed as working for Facebook but is a fictional construct. However when the company gave the first glimpse of Timeline at the f8 event in September, its capabilities were illustrated by the CEO using his own profile. This ought to have spoken of an all-but-ordinary life, yet there Zuckerberg was, spending time at work, travelling for work, getting a dog, minutely recording the food that he cooks himself. ‘Ramp and bacon omelette, breakfast pizza, shaved asparagus pizza, roasted curry chicken thighs…’

The lingering of this detail on the big screen behind Zuckerberg at the Timeline launch reminded me of the Georges Perec piece, originally published in Action Poétique, purporting to be the inventory of the foodstuffs he had eaten in the year 1974. For what is that model Facebook profile about if not an elevating the ordinariness of life into a work of art?

Recording minutiae, and the kinds of things that would happen to anybody, is what Facebook has always been best at – and by the way, I think it is extremely churlish to criticise it for it. Note however the two very different modes of input (and therefore of writing) of one’s story on Timeline. On the one hand, there is the regular accretion of the status updates and assorted daily activities, which up until now were never meant to form part of a permanent biography, but could be assumed to have a very fleeting lifespan; on the other, there is the more carefully selected and presented information that the users supply in order to fill the gaps in their digitally documented past thanks to the new feature. ‘It’s really cool,’ said Zuckerberg to the f8 crowd. ‘It’s really fun and easy to fill your timeline with all the stories from your past.’ And cool and fun and easy it may be, but it’s qualitatively and conceptually very different from having all of your updates republished as part of the new profile, which is the first thing that will happen to every single one of the 800 million existing Facebook users during the roll-out of Timeline. And if you don’t like that, if you don’t wish in fact to have your biography go to print without so much as an opportunity to have a look at the proofs, I’m afraid you’re going to have to go back and edit it, bit by excruciating bit, as soon as Timeline lands on your profile.

This is a far from insignificant demand, and not just because the older, more active users will find it a very time-consuming and fraught task, but because it amounts to a sudden repurposing of personal information that was entered in a different writing space under very different assumptions.

Needless to say, there is, as is customary with these ‘free’ services, no way to opt out from the redesign. You can only opt in sooner, if you’re especially eager.

‘Zuck’ has.

The cover of Zuckerberg’s life story is the quintessential ingratiating device of digital social networking: a pet's photo. Rather more surprisingly, however, and contrary to the f8 presentation, the CEO hasn’t really bothered to fill in his life before Facebook. He writes that he was born in 1984 in the helpfully geolocated town of Dobbs Ferry, New York, but without posting a baby picture. Then nothing until 1998, when he ‘started school at Ardsley High School’. Then, in 2000, the first picture, from his time at the Phillips Exeter Academy. In 2004 he starts work at Facebook, with the intent of ‘making the world more open and connected’. Finally, on 11 February 2004, he joins the actual Facebook, and the rest is, well, not quite history, apparently, because even from this point onwards Zuckerberg’s profile appears uncreditably sparse. Did he not use his own network? Has he purged it for public consumption? And if so, when, and why? Remember, this is the person who wants you to share more, and for whom ‘having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’. So what happened? One clue may be in the wonderfully pointed reminder right under the Timeline cover.

You and Mark aren’t friends, and furthermore you cannot become friends with Mark seeing as he is one of those super-users (ordinary users can’t have more than 5,000 friends. Zuckerberg has over ten million), therefore feel free to subscribe to his updates but be mindful that’s how far as it will ever go.

If Zuckerberg’s profile is in fact sanitised – and I want to believe that it is: nobody could be this uninteresting in real life – this would make his public positions on privacy hypocritical, to no-one’s surprise. Nor is it surprising or in fact in any way noteworthy that this so-called ‘Mark Zuckerberg’ is in fact simply the face of the company, a PR construct, just like Andy Sparks. But the effacing work that goes into that, well, that is something.

There is another Mark Zuckerberg out there who must be quite a remarkable person, with quirks and oddities and a personality that is likely to match his consuming ambition and his fabulous wealth. With darknesses, too, with secrets beyond the amount for which his lawsuits were settled, with kinks, perhaps, even, certainly with relationships whose history is not exhausted by acts of friending and unfriending, loving and ceasing to love. But we don’t get to see any of that. Instead, we get to subscribe to the updates of the authorised Mark Zuckerberg, Timeline’s model subject, at once a consumer and an object of consumption, who, like the type of the well-adjusted, shows us the aspects of ourselves is okay to put on show, and who it is okay for us to be, if we wish for success, acceptance, and soon – who knows – citizenship itself.

Except lives are never that transparent, therefore cannot be made that opaque. For Perec had it right: there may be a depth of political, existential meaning in the seemingly insignificant details, say, in the food that you cook or consume, in the places you visit in your free time – what you reveal about them, how you write them – and there is no amount of templates that will erase that. That slightly clichéd fear, that no matter how careful we are on the networks, we cannot hide our true selves, is nonetheless real.

Ramp and bacon omelette, breakfast pizza, shaved asparagus pizza, roasted curry chicken thighs…

George Perec. 'Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Ninteen Hundred and Seventy-Four'. In Species of Spaces and Other Species, edited and Translated by John Sturrock. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Memory Trade

Translout that gaswind into turfish, Teagues, that’s a good bog and you, Thady, poliss it off, there’s a nateswipe, on to your bottom pulper.

(James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, footnote 2, page 218)

Histories record: Prehistories invent.

(Darren Tofts, Memory Trade)

Towards an archaeology of reading

This is the technique that I use to recall the salient passages of a book I am reading for the purposes of study, presented not by way of instruction – we all have our methods, I don’t presume mine to be better than yours – but rather to make some general points about the print book as an information system.

I use a pen or pencil and a scrap piece of paper that doubles as a bookmark. When I come across a passage that I think I’m going to need to refer to at a later stage, I jot down its coordinates: the page number, naturally, but also where it is located on the page. If it’s a whole paragraph, and the paragraphs are few and easy to count, I might write, say, 5p3, meaning the third paragraph on page 5. If it’s a line or there are more than a seven or eight paragraphs on the page, I use decimals, say 5.4, meaning the line that is a fourth of the way down page 5, or 5.4 -> 5.7, meaning the passage is between a fourth and a seventh of the way down page 5 (roughly speaking, a course). If it’s the whole page, I write 5. If it’s an extended passage, say, from the last paragraph of page 5 to the middle of page 8, I write 5pL -> 8.5. When I’m finished, the piece of paper will look something like this.

The important bits in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, from a post at Found Objects

Armed with this information, I can query the book’s addressable memory, isolating the elements that form my reading of it. Note that I couldn’t very easily do this if I hadn’t recorded this information in the act of reading, but relied rather on the book being word-searchable – that is, if it was available to me also in digital form – because I wouldn’t necessarily remember which exact words to look for, and in which order. By recording the position of the most salient passages, I’ve effectively indexed the book, and it’s a semantic/thematic as opposed to lexical index. Incidentally, I find that it helps for the index to be fairly precise, which is why I believe this system to be superior to using coloured stickers. These make it harder to delimit longer passages, and generally leave you wondering where the bit you marked is supposed to end. Also, with paper you can occasionally write down keywords or brief notes without defacing the book, if it’s not yours, or if it’s yours and you’re fastidious about these things.

Digital editions that can be highlighted and annotated make my system obsolete, but it helps to remember that those functions have their origin in practices of physical inscription such as the ones that I have described – with all that they entail, including the fact that if you lose the piece of paper, you’ve effectively lost your reading of the book and will have to recreate it, a process that may be only marginally faster the second time around.

Falling out of print

I first came across Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich’s Memory Trade shockingly late, more than halfway through my PhD, and would have feverishly produced one of those indices, likely on more than one piece of paper, before sitting down to manually copy the salient passages into a nine-thousand word Word file. There was that much that was quotable and directly relevant to my work, although, as in the case of The Death of Cinema, what mattered even more than the specific insights was the conceptual approach to the topic, the resolute anti-disciplinarity of it. I was utterly frustrated with the directions of memory studies at the time, and needed to find some validating models for the one I had chosen other than the periodic reassurances of my supervisors. Along with works by Haraway, Hayles, Davis, Cherchi-Usai, and the fiction of Jeff Noon, Memory Trade became one of the books that guided me through my research. And it was out of print.

Out of print is a concept that stands to become obsolete, along with limited edition. It has become a lot harder to enforce scarcity in the products of the intellect, which on balance is doubtless a good thing. The fact that Memory Trade was out of print didn’t make it impossible to obtain; but it did mean that I couldn’t get the library at my university to acquire a copy. This is lamentable: one of the least recognised but most tangible contributions that postgraduate students can make to their hosting institution is to expand the intellectual mapping of their topic for the benefit of colleagues down the line – and what better way to bequeath your bibliography than right there, on a shelf? But while a book can stop being printed for a number of incidental reasons, including a publisher’s misfortune, being out of print also means being out of currency, with the implication that your ideas didn’t take on or are no longer relevant. And if Tofts' or Cherchi-Usai’s ideas weren’t relevant, then neither were mine, and I hadn’t even finished writing my book.

But this story is about readings and re-readings, which are also writings and re-writings. Regardless of their publishing status, you carry books (and ideas) forward by including them in other intellectual projects; you try to demonstrate their enduring relevance. Memory Trade is primarily an attempt to produce the history of an idea – the idea of cyberculture – by tracing its origins to the invention of writing and therefore of the literate mind. Cybernetics, as argued by Tofts and drawn by McKeich, is not a product of the early age of computers, but of the late age of print, and its foundational text isn’t The Human Use of Human Beings: it is Finnegans Wake. This thesis, which rests in turn on Tofts’ articulate and compelling take on poststructuralist theory, illuminates the nature of the transition to the digital age, which is not about the wholesale substitution of old forms and patterns of economic production and social interaction with new ones, but rather the emergence of an ecology of sense that integrates, weaves and recombines these patterns – old and new – into something quite different.

This new ecology of sense has yet to take shape, but the work of radical artists such as Joyce and Duchamp allows us to both trace its genealogy and glimpse its contours. Tofts proposes in fact that reading Finnegans Wake may help us to figure out if we are there yet: so long as the Wake seems nigh-impenetrably complex to us, its demands on the reader outlandish and wrong, it means that cyberculture hasn’t quite reached its mature stage. But if the book starts making sense, to the point of seeming straightforwardly readable and even enjoyable, it would be the strongest clue yet that our minds have become hyperliterate.

Digitally remonstered

Finnegans Wake, claims Tofts, is a cybernetic system
constituted by two of the defining characteristics of cybernetics, the feedback loop and the signal transmission. At the macro level, the Wake is, in fact, a single, elaborate feedback loop, beginning and ending in mid-sentence, forever feeding back into itself. (177)
It is an autotelic book-world (as Tofts reminds, Joyce had quipped that ‘if Dublin was razed to the ground it could be re-built on the basis of Ulysses’, 154) concerned with cycles of return (‘fall and resurrection, death and birth, night and day, Viconian ricorso’, 177) and always monitoring its own internal functioning via the continuous repetition of the same details and motifs ‘in varying forms of modification and substitution’ (177). Tofts goes into extensive detail here, and conducts an incisive analysis of the book’s formal features, including its dense hypertextual network of internal and external references. But what I want to quickly touch upon are the anachronistic qualities of Joyce’s book. Like the World Wide Web, Finnegans Wake suspends time and exists outside of time, not least in its demand of multiple readings that are also – and here the lesson of Barthes and Derrida is invaluable – multiple writings.

Enter the digital reissue of Memory Trade. Another anachronism, another return, in varying forms of modification – chief amongst which are the switch to a creative commons license and a new set of images by Murray McKeich (re-generated, recalculated from the original ones), including the one on the cover. The text stays more or less the same but its mode of access changes: now definitively out of print, an awkward fit on ordinary computer screens, more at home on an iPad – I am told – where its vestigial book-like features are best preserved and rendered. But anachronistic is the reissue itself, after thirteen years – a small eternity, in the world of the cyberculture theory – making a new claim of salience under a mutated guise, restating its commitment to think differently about the history and prehistory of our cultural technologies, to slow down and anchor criticism against the deadly drive for a ‘persistent futurism’ (33) that infects it, and to cast doubt on ‘the watchfulness of our cybercultural vigil’ (194). And if you happened to think that it’s also what this blog is at least partly about, well, I’d be flattered by that.

I don’t care to belong to any book that will have me as a character

My favourite story about Finnegans Wake comes from an exchange between Groucho Marx and Leonard Lyons of The New York Post, reproduced in The Letters of Groucho Marx. In one letter, Lyons reports Thornton Wilder’s belief that Groucho appears in the Wake, precisely in the phrase ‘this is the three lipoleum Coyne Grouching down in the living ditch.’ Didn’t the brothers once appear in a skit in which they all wore Napoleon-style hats? The three lipoleum Coyne must be a reference to the hats, and Grouching, well, that didn’t need elaboration. Groucho replied:
There is no reason why I shouldn't appear in “Finnegans Wake”. I'm certainly as bewildered about life as Joyce was. Well, let Joyce be unconfined.

Tracing this item down from the “Wake” could be a life project and I question whether I’m up to it. Is it possible that Joyce at one time was in the U.S.A. and saw “I’ll Say She Is!”? Or did a New York policeman, on his way back to Ireland to see his dear old Mother Machree, encounter Joyce in some peat bog and patiently explain to him that, at the Casino Theater at 39th and Broadway, there were three young Jewish fellows running around the stage shouting to an indifferent world that they were all Napoleon?
Groucho was right to gently lampoon the critic here, for Wilder’s interpretive hunch didn’t stand up to scrutiny. But of course this kind of spurious association is part of the design of the Wake, just as it is part of the design of the World Wide Web: both are machines for generating improbable readings, immensely vast texts without context – at least until a reader comes along and supplies one.

To speak of the prehistory of cyberculture means to manufacture one such context, and simultaneously to look into our future-past in search of the questions that we need to ask of the present. It is important work, and I’m happy that this great book is now set to resume it.

Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich. Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture. 21C/Interface, 1998 & 2001. (The book is currently available at this link, I’ll put up the link to the 21C site as soon as it comes to hand.)

James Joyce. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber & Faber, 1939.

Groucho Marx. The Groucho Letters. London: Sphere, 1967. (The quotations in the post are on page 117.)

With many thanks to Andrea for road-testing the digital edition of Memory Trade on Kindle and iPad.

Darren Tofts is also the author of one of my favourite academic essays, which I touched upon here.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Land Values

They resemble aerial bombardments,


or hex grids in a boardgame,

Scoltand and Northern Ireland

or quarantined areas in an epidemic.


But they’re just different ways of representing the outcome of elections, according to polling station results or electorate winners. The last picture in particular corresponds to a mode of representation that has come to signify the existence of two nations within one, a red one and a blue one, producing a split that cannot be recomposed – in the notable case of the United States – except in the uniting figure of the President.

I don’t recall these visualisations being at all popular in Italy when I was growing up. We did of course refer to certain areas or regions – notably Emilia and Tuscany – as being ‘red’, and conversely Veneto was ‘white’, which connoted it as much for its Catholic fervour as for its steadfast allegiance to the Christian Democratic party. But we had a fully proportional system with no winner-takes-all contests, and so while the relative strengths of different parties in different parts of the country was of course noted and discussed, it made no sense on election night to demarcate one region from the others nor indeed (more importantly) to colour any one of them in anything but a mixture of those primary colours, and there would have had to be as many different shades as regions, rendering the whole exercise pointless.

I polled my friends on Twitter – there is no great research behind this post, I’m afraid – and it seems that in New Zealand the practice has far deeper roots, no doubt as a result of the first-past-the-post system that was in place until 1996 and whose vestiges survive in the form of the 63 general and 7 Māori electorates of MMP. Cheryl Bernstein has noted that the local electoral maps of previous decades ‘resembled those maps of the world with all the pink bits belonging to the British Empire’ – an interesting lineage in and of itself.

Digging through Timeframes I’ve unearthed a map from the 1896 general election that predates this model. It is a very interesting document, not least for the thick patchwork of wonderful advertisements (‘There is something pleasing to an Englishman’s Eye about the Warwick Bicycle’) that surrounds the map proper. In each non colour-coded electorate we find mention of the winner and second placed candidate, along with their affiliation, according to the following legend: G = Government, O = Opposition, I = Independent, C = Continuation (of licenses), R = Reduction, P = Prohibition. The North Island looked like this:

Whereas as of last Saturday night, according to The New Zealand Herald, it looked like this:

One map needs to be pored over, examined in detail, and will surrender the overall election results only after one has laboriously collated the information. The other conveys at a glance – but for the need to zoom into Auckland separately – the dominant political orientation of the electorates that make up half the country.

The second map is a more powerful document, but it also lies. The Tories won a decisive victory on Saturday, but it wasn’t remotely as crushing as the electoral map suggests. They stopped short of reaching an absolute majority, both as a percentage of the vote and in terms of the number of seats apportioned under the voting system. Yet the visualisation that tells this story – which is arguably the only one that really matters in a proportional electoral system – is the one of the chamber, which is a further level of abstraction up, one that isn’t overlaid on the geography of the country and is therefore far less persuasive: it doesn’t move us nor shape our perception of how consensus is distributed across the territory.

So we look at the other map, the one that lies. The one that locks us into a first-past-the-post logic, eliding all parties but four, two of which account for the quasi-totality of the electorates, plus two minnows who made it into Parliament solely thanks to their ability to colour a tiny bit of the country each of yellow and purple.

The so-called regions are all blue, with the sole exception of the West coast of the South Island, and it is a uniform blue, regardless of the extent of the National candidate’s victory, and completely irrespective of actual party vote, which is not what is being measured (although Keith Ng on Scoop went as far as to produce a map of the party vote as if it was first past the post). This allows us to think of the less urbanised parts of the country as a homogenous and irredeemable centre-right block, or, depending on what fuels your sense of moral superiority, an indistinct ‘redneck country’, a place immune to progressive political strategies and that won’t see past race or colour or class in the confirmation of its narrow bias. There is no place on this map for an event like the election of a transsexual left-wing politician for two successive terms as the representative in Parliament of any one of these amorphous electorates, for the map has no shades.

However this year the map of Christchurch (which actually downplays National’s result) strikes me as the most scurrilous of all, for it erases the population that was displaced by the earthquake, as well as the earthquake itself. There is no asterisk that will show up in the annals, no way to weave the events of the last 14 months in its crude narrative. This is your city, struggling to stay red.

It is hard to resist the pull of the local. The quirks of the system force us to obsess on a couple of electoral contests, and on the destinies of two small parties that just won’t die. We all think we know how we’d vote if we lived there. We all have thoughts for the residents, but always in an atmosphere of respect for the sacrosanct exercise of their democratic rights.

Since neither John Banks nor Peter Dunne carried anybody with them else on the strength of their parties’ vote, the effects of their bargained victories on the makeup of Parliament was mathematically quite slight, although far from insignificant in a finely balanced house. But we also hoped that the minister of welfare might lose her seat even though she’d still make it through the party list in order to send a signal, or win a small moral victory, but also and perhaps more basically to restore pride in the community.

It is hard to rest the pull of the local, or wanting to know how fared the neighbourhood. And so on Sunday morning I checked the results of our local polling booth and then tweeted the following:

By which I guess I meant to brag, which would be misguided enough, except noting that the government enjoys as little as 20% support on this side of Berhampore will be very little consolation when we become the target of their welfare reforms – as we most assuredly will – or the very school in which the voting took place will end up in a league table, its wonderful work devalued by a wrong, punishing metric.

That is just what those maps do – they measure the wrong things: the votes, but not the reasons; the outcome, but not process. And they flatten the political into electoral politics, generating ideas about the country that conform to their crude schematism. Ideas than in turn produce scintillating pieces of analysis such as this one, from director Taika Waititi:

Or this complaint about non-voters from Richard Pamatatau (whom I ordinarily have a lot of time for):

What these pronouncements and those maps have in common is that they are uncomprehending; they say both more and less than what needs to be said, overdetemining political reality and at the same time wishing it to be simpler than it is. But there are things that we don’t have maps for. We don’t have maps showing the apathetic versus the disaffected, or who is selfish and who is stupid, or committed, or hopeful, and where they all live. And so we need to find other, more meaningful ways of engaging with all of these social subjects, instead of painting them one of two colours, or calling them fools for not wishing to take part in that particular exercise, in the illusion of being counted and having a say.

Māori media and Māori politics both offer an alternative conceptual model, based on different mappings of the same territory. Mappings that not only follow different physical lines of demarcation, covering larger swathes of the country, but respond to different demands from their constituents. It is of course not surprising that switching to the campaign coverage on Māori Television should be akin to the experience of watching Te Kāea after a regular diet of news from the commercial networks; that the same viewers who appear to take a far greater interest in social knowledge should be better informed about their political representatives, and more inclined to listen to lengthy debates on substantive issues. But the contrast is instructive nonetheless, and timely. While the Labour party goes through it cleansing exercise and proceeds to elect another pair of leaders based on their popularity amongst their peers, and not whether they have a plan to win the next election or even necessarily a good enough reason for wanting to, we should talk with some urgency about public media reform so that we can produce another public like the public of Māori Television, and set about remapping the political and social debate for those who are stuck on the general roll. We’re not lacking for an example to follow.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Every three years the institution of the election poster gives us an object lesson in psychogeography, remaking the country into red zones, blue zones, contested zones. A sign erected on a private fence or put up at one’s window makes an uncomplicated political statement: this is a Tory household, a Labour household, a Green household; the sum of many such statements can mark an entire town or suburb, making class visible in a manifest way. As for the posters in public and commercial spaces, they too make concrete the geographical distribution of the parties’ efforts: who concentrates where, pushing which messages; just as importantly, who is absent, and must be assumed to be working to shore up their consensus elsewhere.

But posters aren’t just the equivalent of little coloured flags on a map. They also carry their own meanings, which seldom coincide entirely with the plea to vote for party X or candidate Y. For instance, the inclusion of John Key on most of National’s posters – including the ones in support of individual candidates on the list – makes the Prime Minister’s portrait from the shoulders up the common design feature of the party’s campaign, hence both the leit motif and palimpsest of its core messages. Conversely, the absence of Phil Goff’s from Labour’s posters marks a forced departure from the campaign style of Clark’s era. I think it’s fair to say that Labour scrambled in search of a new approach, going from the horribly wrong

to the horribly, horribly, oh dear god, really?, horribly wrong

before settling for a fairly punchy and consistent design for both the candidate and the party posters, the latter relying largely if not exclusively on propositional statements as opposed to imagery. One message in particular has come to characterise the campaign above all others:

But even looking at Labour’s full complement of posters what is striking is the almost complete absence of the party’s social justice platform, in spite of the fact this is arguably the strongest it has been for some time. Save for the $15 hour minimum wage initiative, even the policies aimed at the most disadvantaged are sold as lifestyle enhancers.

The reason behind this choice may have to be sought in an utterly depressing poll released earlier this month that revealed to what extent centre-left voters support the vindictive Tory approach to beneficiaries, but the discomfiting fact that the New Zealand middle class still won’t forgive the poor for Rogernomics is also an index of the continuing abdication of moral leadership on Labour’s part. Having chosen not to raise the spectre of inequality, let alone address its root causes, Labour has forced itself to wage the election on its opposition to the sale of a minority shareholding in the public power companies that it ran for a decade under the state-owned-enterprise model, that is to say as de-facto private companies tasked with extracting maximum profits from their customer base. It then proceeded to affect great surprise that a public that remains opposed to privatisation won’t be more forcefully swayed by a policy difference that is technical at best.

The key to a different poster campaign, therefore to a different campaign more generally, could have come from Labour’s quite remarkable 20-minute opening television address, which promoted its current front bench and policies against the backdrop of the history of the party and its unwavering commitment – but for the notable exception of the Lange-Douglas years – to a coherent set of social democratic principles. I honestly thought at that point that the party might pick up the theme and go for a retro line of posters. We might have seen this again

or this,

or a variation on this,

(Messrs Savage, Fraser and Nash, 1954)

and it might have sparked a useful conversation on the history of the social contract in New Zealand, and what appealing to that pre-neoliberal past might actually mean and entail. Strong policy initiatives that build on that tradition and on those values – such as the introduction of a capital gains tax – could then have been promoted within an appropriate ideological framework, instead of being measured against the very narrow parameters of poll favourability, which naturally counselled against mentioning them at all, as any other new tax would.

National’s posters, but for the ubiquity of the drongo-in-chief, are roughly specular to Labour’s in terms of content, and peculiarly (perhaps even studiously) unimpressive and bland from a visual point of view. The most notable exception is a poster reminiscent of the infamous campaign orchestrated in 2005 by John Ansell.

Road-building is just about the only area these days in which the Tories allow themselves some swagger, and are unafraid to enthusiastically publicise how beholden they are to their backers. Even so, the poster is curiously ambiguous, allowing people who might be sceptical of the thaumaturgic effects of great roading projects to see virtue in the stance of the bloke who stands in for Labour. We’re quite a ways away the odious divisiveness of this.

By contrast with both major parties, the Greens aren’t the least bit shy when it comes to making claims that are not so much ideological as downright existential. This, remember, is the party that in 2008 tied its fortunes to those of the planet

and entrusted an Aryan-looking, Missoni-clad child to instruct us to vote for them, or else.

This year’s offering picks up in a slick, self-assured manner right where the previous campaign left off. In this instalment the child has been replaced with a friendlier model and the hope for the survival and continued employment of humankind has taken the concrete form of the coupling of green jobs and clean energy – the new economy made in Obama.

These are the dominant messages that vie for our attention and play against each other in our cities and on our rural roads. Juxtapositions can be hard to interpret: is this a clash of incompatible worldviews, or a glimpse of tomorrow’s coalition?

And what of the placing of ACT at ground level, literally at the feet of its life-giving coalition partner?

ACT’s posters are at a premium, at least in Wellington, the baffling aesthetic of the few that I’ve seen reflecting its state of utter confusion

whilst another party languishing in the low single digits yet flush with cash projects a clean, confident image as it tries to position itself as the viable right wing fringe of the Parliament of 2014.

New Zealand First produced the poster version of a non-sequitur

Image by edmuzik
which was later made slightly more intelligible by means of a piece of recession-era bricolage

whereas the party that I used to be proud to support with my membership got an old sign out of storage, in an apparent, stubborn refusal to gift any of its twelve remaining votes to Mana. (Really? Come on guys.)

And this, at least in the capital, is the unimpressive extent of it, in keeping with the level of the political conversation and a campaign that struggled to take off after the Rugby World Cup and thereafter to generate much interest, its conclusion largely seen as foregone and quite possibly not all that important. In fact, the claim in my opening paragraph notwithstanding, I’ve walked through suburbs in which the signs of the campaign are all but absent – disconcertingly so. To step into them from a more densely marked area is like stepping into a place of indifference, or into another time, barely a week from now, when these very forgettable posters will start to be forgotten.

The image that will stay will me the longest may well end up being one that I nearly failed to notice, up Vivian Street, of a series of grievances against the Tory government struck on little square medals and hung on a fence that is popular amongst the knitters of graffiti. Incongruously small, the medals dangle in the wind without making much noise, like niggling complaints in lieu of the outrage that nobody musters. No-one will bother to take them down before Saturday, when people go to the polls. They will still be there next week, and likely the week after, waiting for other grievances to be added on and to start dangling along.

(more election posters from earlier this year)

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Long Goodbye

I spent the night after Berlusconi won his first election working until the smallest hours to meet a deadline. I remember listening to Radio Popolare in my headphones while Justine slept, and hearing Northern League leader and ally Umberto Bossi trash Berlusconi in an interview at 3 am.

Neither of these details is casual, my working through the night or Bossi’s intemperance. I have been a freelance worker all my life. Freelance is an upbeat, empowering word, but it comes with little or no bargaining power, little or no legal protection, the more or less permanent worry about where the next job will come from, fretting about when you’re going to get paid, and occasionally not getting paid at all – which, back when I started, wasn’t at all infrequent. Justine and I had moved in together six months before that 1994 election, and money was tight. When I asked our local bank about the possibility of a personal loan, the manager said he couldn’t help me but kindly directed me towards a private firm. I discovered some time later that this was a loan shark outfit.

I’ve always been a freelance worker, even during the 18-month stint when I kept regular office hours in a regular office and I was expected to turn up every day, like a regular employee. I am unexceptional in this: Italians of my generation quickly learned not to expect from the private sector the offer of an open-ended employment contract, which most businesses regard as too costly and inflexible. When I moved to New Zealand, I found that there was very little difference between being a casual and a permanent employee, for here precarity had been enshrined in legislation by a decade of reforms, and the cost of labour had been brought into line with the realities of the global marketplace and the needs of business. A nice word for this is modernisation. Whereas while successive governments in Italy gave various names to the aleatory contracts under which I operated (the wonderfully onomatopoeic being the most popular one), a substantial separation was maintained between the country as it worked on paper and the erosion of workers’ rights in the real world.

The Liberation Day demonstration in Milan of 1994 photographed by Nanni Moretti for his film Aprile

Berlusconi seized power in 1994 promising a ‘new Italian miracle’. It was obvious even then that his miracle act was to stay out of jail, something that once his friends in politics had been routed by the corruption scandals uncovered in 1992 and 1993 he could only hope to achieve via Parliamentary immunity and writing his own laws. Accordingly, his was a regime based on illegality, or rather a-legality: a suspension of various laws, and a suspension of judgments more generally, including moral judgments concerning how various centres of power – the mafia, the Church, nodes of concentrated capital relying on quasi-feudal relations – operated in the country. This particular form of literal conservation (as opposed to the more commonly inflected political conservatism) was the singular objective of the nearly seventeen years he spent as a politician, eleven of which as Prime Minister. Only conservation could allow Berlusconi to reactivate the consensus machine of the old Christian Democrats and hold together a coalition of heterogeneous and in many respects antithetical forces; only conservation could allow him to keep painting the Left, grotesquely, as ‘communists’, at the same time as he legitimised the archaic, visceral attachment to the land of the Northern League and gave new respectability to Gianfranco Fini’s fascist party. None of this would be possible in a ‘modern’ Western country, which is what perplexed foreigners so greatly about Berlusconi’s Italy, alongside his failure to reform the country according to the prevailing free-market models.

This is the failure that The Economist will forever begrudge him. To be fair he made something of an attempt in 1994, only to provoke a massive popular backlash culminating in the million-strong march in Rome that helped bring about the early collapse of his first government. In his subsequent terms as Prime Minister, in spite of commanding large majorities, he opted instead to occupy power, cement his populism and surround himself with vassals hand-picked for their mediocrity who would depend on him entirely for their political survival, thus ensuring their loyalty.

As well as leveraging a near-total control over the nation’s media, his populism was predicated on a revisionist approach to history and a radical degradation of political discourse. The immediate and repeated attempts by Berlusconi and his allies to commemorate the veterans of Mussolini's Salò Republic alongside the victims of Nazism and Fascism, far from reflecting a pointless fixation, were instrumental to the weakening of our Republican institutions and to the systematic attacks against our public education system and the teachers, whom he accused of inflicting their anti-government propaganda upon the nation’s children; while the name of the party with which Berlusconi hastily entered politics – Forza Italia (Go Italy!) – was the perfect expression of the kind of language that was to dominate the second Republic inaugurated by his government. He had succeeded in reducing politics to a slogan, because politics had been emptied of historical and social articulation and was thus ripe for a takeover by marketing professionals.

Throughout all this, Dorian Gray-like, Berlusconi never aged. Time for him truly seemed to pass differently. While his lawyer, Cesare Previti, was jailed for corrupting judges to favour the sale to Berlusconi of the country’s largest publishing house, he himself was acquitted from instigating the crime because the terms of his prosecution had lapsed. Endless deferral tactics allowed him to stave off many more trials. But keeping time still so fiercely for so long eventually took its toll on the leader, and towards the end of his regime political power, cosmetic surgery and pharmacology no longer sufficed to ensure his longevity. He turned to young blood instead. Having been divorced by his second wife, he housed a large contingent of young prostitutes at an apartment complex in Milano 2, the suburb named like a sequel that he had built in the Seventies, and whence his business empire had sprung forth. It was an all too literal return to youth that would play a significant role in his unravelling. Yet those excesses also signified, alongside a troubled and troubling conception of the female body that continues to mark Italian culture very profoundly, the full depth of national anxieties concerning historical transitions and the passing of time itself.

The schedule of repayments of our sovereign debt is one inexorable external measure of this passing, made starker by the inability of our economy – at least the legal economy that sits atop the vast area known as “il sommerso”, that is to say its underground, literally “submerged” counterpart – to keep pace with it. That is the timeline that is catching up with Italy now, demanding a reckoning with the economic pact known as Europe, a pact that we signed up for in the hope that it would force modernity upon us. Now it demands of us that we modernise the country according not to a system of shared values, but to the needs of the bond markets.

This is what makes these days of celebrations hollow: the knowledge that Berlusconi’s fall is not a victory of democracy, quite the contrary. He will be replaced for a time – precisely how long, we don’t know – by Mario Monti, former European Commissioner, former chancellor of Università Bocconi – call it the Milan School of Economics if you like – current president of the Trilateral Commission, advisor to the likes of Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola, and whom nobody elected. This technocrat is now being asked to form a cabinet of other technocrats and make from outside of politics some of the most political decisions that the country has had to make for decades, and to effectively restart our history. You may be surprised to hear that I don’t greatly begrudge him this role, and that I don’t think that economic shock therapy along the lines of Greece’s proposed reforms or the Portuguese re-entry plan is the inevitable outcome of his tenure (although of course it’s far from unlikely); but above all I am genuinely saddened that it has come to this, and that our exhausted institutions couldn’t produce a democratic response to the nation’s protracted economic and political crisis other than an almost heroic deferral of the demand for change and reform.

The body of the leader will serve as one of the enduring symbols of these two lost decades. Carefully and surgically preserved, mythologised for its virile strength (he reckoned he could go for hours, although the recorded conversations amongst his protégés suggest otherwise), airbrushed, the face frozen in a permanent smirk: this was our transubstantiated political body, the vessel in which we projected one last time the belief that our post-war economic miracle was for real, and lived on. But no more. As of today we wake up in a different body, which may not even be male, with a different skin, which may not even be white, and we’ll have to learn again what it means to look after it.