Monday, April 30, 2012

25 April

Partisans enter Milan on 25 April, 1945

I find it an intriguing coincidence that the 25th of April marks the commemoration of wartime events in both my country of birth and my country of adoption. In most respects, the two occasions couldn’t be more different: Anzac Day commemorates the service and sacrifice of uniformed troops in a global conflict whose rationale is seldom discussed and poorly understood, whereas the Festa della Liberazione celebrates the irregular partisan troops who liberated Italy from Nazi-Fascist rule, and takes pains to acknowledge the citizens who supported their effort through mass strikes and various acts of solidarity and defiance. Yet in spite of this fundamental (and fundamentally political) difference, the two days share not only a common rhetoric of courage and personal sacrifice, but also a slogan – ‘lest we forget’ – that begs the question of what it is that we ought to remember, by what means and to what end.

Earlier this week, Jeff Sparrow wrote in Overland that Anzac Day is in fact a celebration of forgetting. I have no quarrel with his argument, although I find it useful to read it alongside something Scott Hamilton wrote three years ago in relation to the revival of the celebrations in New Zealand. The two essays reach diametrically opposite conclusions, possibly reflecting different realities on the two sides of the Tasman, but agree on one point: that there is to a deficit in the factual knowledge and means of analysis of the apparent object of the celebration, which is therefore apprehended on a different level to that of history and politics, that is to say on the field – respectively – of aesthetics and ethics.

Not so the Festa della Liberazione, which remains contested on strictly political grounds and to an extent that may seem surprising to outsiders. Successive Berlusconi governments and their supporters expended great efforts and political capital in trying year after year to make the Day no longer about partisans and the Resistance, but rather about all victims of the Italian civil war. Besides the (failed) attempts to enact the shift through legislation, these efforts have included a film adaptation of journalist Giampaolo Pansa’s crisply titled Il sangue dei vinti (‘the blood of the defeated’) as well Renzo Martinelli’s grotesquely revisionist Porzus.

To understand why this new amnesty – following the one promulgated by then Minister of Justice and Secretary of the Communist Party Palmiro Togliatti in 1946 – is so important to the Right in Italy, we must remember that the Italian Constitution is grounded on antifascist principles, and includes an explicit prohibition to reform the Fascist party. But more importantly the document – with its emphasis on the rights of the citizen to employment, housing and equal participation in society, and the duty of the State to create the conditions for the full realisation of these rights – reads nowadays like a manifesto against neoliberalism. To attack the memory of the Resistance, to make the men who chose to fight alongside the Nazis in the Republic of Salò as worthy of civic remembrance as the victims of their terror and the partisans who defied them, is an implicit attack on the Constitution that the men and women of that movement went on to write; and to attack the Constitution is in turn the means to not only legitimise the most violent and racist fringes of the Right, but also the kind of reforms enacted by the current ‘technical’ government with the support of the near-entirety of our elected Parliament. This is the fraught terrain on which the memory of the Resistance is contested, and it’s a struggle that doesn’t spare from criticism the very custodians of the memory.

This banner was put up at a small local commemorative event I attended this morning. It reads Partisans side with those who struggle! but it’s not a statement of fact: it is an exhortation, a demand that the partisans’ association – which has close ties with the Democratic Party that supports the government – show greater solidarity with the opponents of Monti’s reforms and the abrogation of our democracy. ‘Only the oppressed can know the need for liberation’, reads a document of the social centre behind that banner, and further: ‘memory is partisan’.

I thought of that line later in the day as I attended the national Festa della Liberazione march with my son. If memory is partisan, then so is history. And if history is partisan, then so is the city, so is society.

Fifty thousand people marched in Milan today. Naturally the number of actual partisans and survivors is now greatly diminished, and so the symbols were mostly carried by others. That is the process of our renewal, and in spite of the foregoing, in spite of the trouble with carrying that memory, with doing justice to it and with using it as an instrument for justice, there was that feeling again, of being amongst my people, of being part of a mass movement.

I took some pictures.

The standards of the municipalities


We are the partisans’ association too! (signed:: rebels, occupiers, temporary employees, NO TAV protesters…)

Let’s not be saddled with the debt of the great infrastructure works. You can’t arrest the struggle!

25th of April: let us free ourselves from the dictatorship of the markets.

Joseph took this one

Standards of two branches of the partisans’ association (ANPI)

This, too, is the city as memory, nowhere more so than in the last two images. Because finally the 25th of April is also, if not predominantly, that: an act of communal, defiant remembrance. I was glad to be a part of it again.

Originally posted at Overland.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Absent Mother

Then Sally and I
Did not know what to say.
Our mother was out of the house
For the day.

In the United States at the end of World War II, when their men came back from the front and their labour was no longer required, women were faced with an injunction: your baby or your job. In New Zealand in 2012, new legislation will require single mothers on a benefit who have another child to apply for work when their youngest turns one or risk losing their entitlements: your baby then your job. It’s nearly seventy years later and two countries that are geographically – if not politically and ideologically – far apart, but if there is such a thing as a Western view of motherhood, its transformation is all in these two statements, and opens up questions that invest broader social issues and perceptions. What does it mean for mothers to be there in one case, and not be there in the other? How does that differ from the kind of presence required of fathers then and now? What are the implications for the autonomy and agency of women, whether or not they are, have been or intend to become mothers?

I am not qualified to attempt to answer these questions to any great depth, but I feel confident enough to make one suggestion: that a hypothetical study of #NoMums would yield very different results from the ongoing examination of #NoDads. This is especially true if we make the two propositions literally a question of presence and absence. Earlier this year, in my own contribution to the #NoDads corpus, I examined an how-to guide on being a Great Dad that blamed the traditional absence of fathers from childcare and upbringing on ‘work, family situation or a limited understanding of the role of a father’, and sought to correct it by imparting the skills and the attitudes necessary to take full-time care of the children. But persistent throughout the book was also the sense that Great Dad’s number one task was in fact to spend ‘quality time’ with the brood: to give them his full attention, to resist the temptation to turn on the TV or let them play on the computer when they’re bored, to be a positive model of behaviour. Whereas for mothers still – it seems to me – the core requirement is to be there, to provide that fundamental presence that anchors and defines childhood, as well as ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of the home and the constant monitoring – sometimes via appropriate agents such as teachers and sitters – of the children's activities and whereabouts. And this presence of the mother is demanded at the same time as the economy, the state and society require of her that she be out of the house, working, reducing her burden on welfare and on the family resources and yet – because Rosie’s choice is always wrong – never gain proper, meaningful personal independence.

Which leads me straight – well, straight-ish – to The Cat in the Hat. Let’s call it a stop in that journey, a snapshot from a time and a place in which this maternal presence might have been understood in a particular way. Although I hasten to reassure that I don’t intend to take the book as a sociological document or index of its time. If nothing else, Theodor Seuss Geisel was too programmatically weird, as well as too politically subversive, to counsel that always questionable move. So take what follows simply as an entry for the yet to be commissioned book on #NoMums, or as an opportunity to reflect on a small gallery of images.

The first one is this: a house on a hill on a cold rainy day. A boy and a girl stare disconsolately through the window at the greyness outside. And right off the bat – this is page one of The Cat in the Hat – I wonder what it is that the children are looking at. And I know (although having by now read the book approximately a sesquillion times I cannot honestly say that I remember feeling this way when I opened it for the first time) that they are alone in the house, which will be confirmed in a couple of pages. ‘Our mother was out of the house / For the day.’ Two lines that suffice to signify that the children are alone since who else by the mother would be with them? But at this stage they are just looking outside.

The year is 1957. The place is a house on a hill outside of an unspecified town. The boy and the girl in the window are latchkey kids, a phrase that had been known to the American public at least since 1944. Home alone and instructed not to open the door to strangers, children such as these were synonymous even then with neglectful parenting but at least they were thinkable and not an absurdity. The book begins, in other words, with a scene that is within the realm of the ordinary.

The second image come forty-six pages and roughly two thousand words later, and is this one:

The first glimpse of the mother returning, a sight that brings consternation to the children and their petulant pet goldfish who are by now surveying a house thrown into total chaos by the Cat in the Hat and his impish companions, Thing 1 and Thing 2. So that second image must be paired up with a third one, representing the outcome of the rupture of the domestic order in the mother’s absence:

Conversely, the reappearance of the mother signals to the children that they must put everything back in its place. Even if the chaos wasn’t their fault – it doesn’t matter. Mum cannot be allowed to see what the house got up to while she was away. The resolution to this potentially catastrophic crisis is brought about by the cat, who returns atop his miraculous tidying machine and swiftly picks up all the things that were down, and puts them away. So the order is restored just in time for the mother to open the door and speak her only lines:
Did you have any fun?
Tell me. What did you do?
At which point the book ends, tantalisingly, with another question: what would you do if you were thus confronted – would you tell your mother about what went on? And in that question the value of her absence is suddenly transformed: for it illustrates how her spending the day in town, which at the outset seemed to have left the children sad and bored, is what made possible their secret world of play, and the irruption – with a BUMP! – of the bringer of lots of good fun that is funny. It’s like when other people are not in the frame and Calvin’s limp stuffed tiger is turned into Hobbes: it takes an absence, and more particularly the absence of adults, and even more particularly of the primary caregiver, to achieve that kind of transformation.

What complicates this reading a little is that in both The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (where, to make the premise look even worse, mother leaves for the day putting the children in charge of clearing a whole lot of snow) is that Sally and her brother don’t seem in fact to be having that much fun. Their dominant emotion is growing apprehension at the mess that the cat is making. In the first book it’s the cluttering of objects; in the sequel it’s a single pink icing stain that travels from the bathtub to mother’s white dresses and from there to a wall and to Dad’s ten dollar shoes, then to the rug in the hall, to Dad’s bed and finally to the snow surrounding the house. Apart from the wonderful invention (‘The thing that takes spots off a dress / Is a wall!’), the stain puts the children’s anxiety in sharper focus. Clearly it is not it that bothers them – it’s the thought that mother will see it.

Now perhaps what they fear is that they would be blamed for it, for having eaten cake in the bath and so forth (if you take the standard approach: of course the Cat in the Hat, like Calvin, is a product of the child’s imagination, etc.), but I think that more fundamentally that stain, like the clutter before it, is a sign of transgression, of all the things that the children get up to – or fantasise about – unbeknownst to their parents, and like all such signs must disappear in timely fashion so that the children can resume their place by the window and give again the outward appearance of having missed their mother terribly.

In the last scene of The Cat in the Hat Sally and her brother are composed again, and smiling. They are the image of those ‘abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls’ of the primers lamented by John Hersey and to which The Cat in the Hat was a direct response. Thus if on one hand we may interpret the children's reaction to the cat as the interiorisation of a set of rules or proper behaviour and domestic decorum imparted to them by the mother (hence the goldfish's increasingly shrill protestations about the things that absolutely cannot be done while she's away), her absence is both what enables the children to transgress those rules and – crucially – to practice dissimulating their transgressions. But if that is the case then it is almost as if she had planned it that way all along, and that final question upon her return were part of a ritual, a test of disobedience. Thus in that closing image the absent mother – I don't know, what would you say? – may just have become the unlikely wise parent.

Look, she is back

Dr Seuss. The Cat in the Hat. New York: Random House, 1957.
–––––– The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. New York: Random House, 1958.

Monday, April 9, 2012


By the time you read this I may no longer be alive.

Okay, it’s a fairly slim chance. I’m posting this Friday for Monday, so it’s just a matter of my surviving the weekend. But it could happen. Besides, of course, every text has a steadily increasing chance of surviving its author over time. Suppose you stumbled upon this page in one year, or ten years. How about fifty years? Or I could have scheduled it to be published later than that to begin with.

The old Blogger interface, which is in the process of being phased out, allows scheduled posting to take place no later than 31 December, 2031. I’d be sixty years old then. But the new interface has no such limitation. It is a little laborious because you have to click manually through the calendar as opposed to typing in the date, so it takes about five minutes to schedule a post one hundred years from now. This would be, needless to say, an optimistic gesture. Would my Blogger account still exist in a hundred years? Would the Blogger service? Would Google, that owns it? Would the internet? And even supposing that all those things were still in place, who would be alerted to the publication of this post? Would the RSS feeds of old, faithful, dead readers register the update for the benefit of nobody at all?

A more likely answer is that machines would read the post. Search engine crawlers, if such things still exist, or whatever has come to replace them. And then, eventually, if the internet operates more or less the same way it does today, somebody would chance upon the post and perhaps even read it. Then, and only then, would the post become posthumous.

The question of what happens to what lawyers call your ‘digital assets’ after you die is a vexed one and a regular topic amongst the publications most keenly interested in the lifestyle of the digerati, such as Mashable. One of the currently debated questions is: who should get your passwords? Facebook thinks nobody should, and, at least until such time as legislation currently under discussion might force it to do otherwise, only allows for the account of a deceased person to be turned into a ‘frozen’ memorial page. To put the issue in perspective, according to the latest estimate I was able to find there were five millions Facebook accounts belonging to dead people in 2010. At the rate that the site is growing I wouldn’t be surprised if that number had doubled over the last two years.

However – and this should come to no surprise whatsoever to anybody – there are people out there who resent the idea that a trifling nuisance such as the end of life might interfere with their social media schedule. Enter If I Die and a host of other applications and services designed to either memorialise your digital oeuvre or allow you to continue posting on your favourite hangouts from beyond the grave. Helpfully, Mashable explains that
Wilook, the Israel-based company behind [If I Die], built the app because nobody really knows when death will come.
Clearly this not-knowing-when-death-will-come business constitutes an entirely new kind of problem requiring equally innovative solutions, of which there has indeed been no shortage. I documented for my PhD some services that offered to create permanent online memorials on the web – for a fee, naturally – and that greatly validated my research by going out of business while I was still in draft. In a similar vein, MyWebWill, a precursor of the If I Day app created in 2010 by two young Swedish entrepreneurs, nowadays greets its visitors with the following message.

Leaving aside the rather delicious albeit possibly coincidental detail that the service was discontinued on the day of the dead, there is reason to doubt that If I Die will be around until you’ve actually had time to expire. And besides much of what the application offers is redundant: if the problem is letting your online contacts know that you have died, the same friends who would act as nominated trustees for If I Die could take care of posting the necessary messages, or post future-dated material on your wall. And the likes of Blogger (as discussed) and Twitter allow scheduled posting with a minimum of fuss.

So as a footnote to the great digital immortality project, this business of social media ghosting seems a little ridiculous, just as mildly pathetic is the thought of wanting to stick around and chat some more – like a morbid attachment to the rhythms of the feed, to the ennui-inducing certainty that it will tick over soon with more updates, more mentions, more reactions. Except this time at least you’d have some actual news to share. Guess what, I’m dead! And to think you might still be good company then, if not better company, is the final step in the zombification of the social ritualised daily in a series of semi-compulsive, automatic gestures as you cycle through Twitter, Facebook, email and back again.

Proper posthumous writing, by contrast, is best understood as a post-social activity, something to do not when you are dead (because you aren’t, or you wouldn’t be writing) but rather when everyone you know is dead. What would you write, and how, to a readership of reliable machines and the odd person one hundred years from now? What about three hundred years from now, when half the planet might have become uninhabitable? Or ten thousand years from now, when your language may no longer be spoken, or when writing as we understand it may no longer be practiced and barely be recognised?

These aren’t entirely idle thoughts. Consider Stewart Brand’s notion of the long now, the institution of the 10,000 year library, and his suggestion that we should write the year in dates using five digits, to train ourselves to take a longer view and expand the duration of the future. There is no reason why some of these ideas, which are primarily employed at the service of environmental causes or cultural conservation, shouldn’t inform the practice of writing: not for now, but for later; not for the people you know, but for the people you don’t; not reflecting – therefore reinforcing – the social and political structures that exist, but open to the near-infinite possibilities of their reconfiguration; finally, not relying on language as it is, but speculating as to what it might become.

I intend all this as a mental exercise, as a strategy for questioning our assumptions concerning rhetoric, but just to be literal – because I love being literal – I wrote such a post. It is scheduled to be published at midnight on April 9, 2112.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Garibaldi's Statue

When they start a new town in Romagna, they first throw up a monument to Garibaldi and then build a church, because there's no fun in a civil funeral unless it spites the parish priest. The whole history of the province is concerned with spite of this kind.

(Giovanni Guareschi, Don Camillo and His Flock)

This week is all about the announcement that I have a new blog over at the revamped Overland, in a large and frankly intimidating company that includes – to my utter delight – a well-known person to readers of this blog. It’s an exciting development for me personally and one of its challenges will be thinking about what to write where as I go about addressing two largely distinct set of readers.

I don’t have a terribly clear idea at this stage of what the eventual demarcations will look like, but by launching the new blog with the translation of a column that Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote nearly forty years ago I wanted to pre-emptively deal with the pressure I know I am going to feel to be more topical over there than I am over here, where as far as growing an audience is concerned I have been answerable to no-one but myself. Because I am still not a great predictor of what readers will like and respond to, but this much I have figured out: that the issue of perceived relevance has little to do with the topic of the day, and that people who read stuff online, to a greater degree than consumers of print publications, have come to expect the instant response to developing stories or the review of the latest book alongside all manner of anachronisms, and that they know they can glean something useful from both. It is a situation I have critiqued in the past, for it leads to a flattening of temporality that is far from unproblematic, but so long as it reflects a bias of the medium – and I think it does – then the bias needs to be understood and, if possible, turned against itself or used to one’s advantage.

Monuments, too, are large, immovable anachronisms, concrete markers of memory and history that seek to assert the past over the present, or more precisely over the future present of successive generations. Famously in Italy every town has a street or a square named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, and more often than not a statue as well. In my native Milan, the statue of Garibaldi sits atop a colossal plinth in the square outside the city’s castle, and it is traditionally around this statue that political marches have assembled. But Garibaldi is also to this day a living symbol, and so his statues are periodically clothed with red shirts or wrapped in red mantles as if to signify the continued relevance and presence of the old revolutionary leader.

There is a story that circulates about the statue in Milan: that one morning in 1944, during the Nazi occupation of the city, a sign was put up on the monument. It read ‘Peppin, vegn giò de lì ch’i en anmò chi.’ Giuseppe, come down, they’re still here.

I like that image a lot, of Garibaldi dismounting from his great big plinth and coming down to join the partisans and liberate my hometown. As I like that story by Giovanni Guareschi in which a citizen of Don Camillo’s village makes a donation to the church inside an old wooden statue of Garibaldi modified with stucco to look like Saint Anthony. ‘Here,’ writes Guareschi,
‘the ferocity of the trick consisted not so much in bringing Garibaldi into the church and having him worshipped as a saint, but rather in filling up Garibaldi's chest with gold napoleons accompanied by this sarcastic note:
Dear priest (yes, priest, for there is gold here and only priests can detect gold, being so greedy for it!): Contrary to what you say, there is no devil in the heart of Garibaldi. Instead, there is a precious treasure which you will certainly not refuse. Priest, if Masses are still being celebrated by the time you read this letter (and I doubt they will be), do celebrate a Mass for the repose of the soul of the anticlerical Garibaldian soldier Alberto Ferrazza, and use the napoleons to buy yourself a few nice banquets and toast the everlasting glory of Giuseppe Garibaldi!’

There are so many layers to this small episode, so much to learn about the persistence of symbols, both religious and secular, both metaphysical and political. The rabid anticleric (in Italian mangiapreti, literally ‘priest-eater’) who makes a spiteful donation to the church – but a donation nonetheless, and a large one at that – personifies the paradox of a culture clinging on to its traditions even as it sought to embrace radical renewal and progress in the form of socialism. The need to smuggle the likeness of Garibaldi into a church, made to look like a saint and carrying gold coins as safe-conduct, strikes me even now as the perfect allegory of our cursed political history. Did we ever seriously expect to be able to quietly leave those monumental contradictions behind?

Few writers embodied and articulated these issues as sharply as Giovanni Guareschi and Pier Paolo Pasolini. But this story from my country, this literary story, is also the story of my own family. So where do I think I am going?

Overland operates out of Australia both as a print journal and as an online publication, and whilst it depends on its subscribers it also benefits from an impressive roll of institutional backers. The editors first approached me at the end of last year to write a piece about the eurozone crisis that I am quite sure I wouldn’t have had the nerve to embark upon if it hadn’t been commissioned to me. (I can now see that ‘I am not an economist’ was a very poor excuse.) Subsequently the article got me invited to discuss those issues on Media 7, which was another personal highlight – by which I mean not the being on television as such (although, yes, that too), but being able to engage with a broader audience in a manner that felt consistent with what I’ve been trying to do here.

That remains the most pleasing aspect of the work that I’ve picked up and the connections I’ve made through this business of blogging, including those that didn’t quite come to fruition: that they developed out of a personal project, which made them thinkable in a way that a more traditional apprenticeship in journalism or print media wouldn’t have. In all of this, the value of amateur practice cannot be overestimated, but neither can the need to eventually find other outlets, which necessitates at least some form of organization but most often actual institutions.

I say this because the channel that runs Media 7 is facing liquidation, whilst writing for a publication backed by the institutions of another country amounts for me to a second, smaller migration, made more complicated by the fact that I know so little about the place. It is tempting to underestimate geography on the web, to contend that audiences are increasingly deterritorialised and so are their writers, and perhaps even celebrate this, as in part no doubt it should: but it’s also true that the greater centres exert a far greater influence on what is relevant and topical. Stories about American society or politics have an almost universal currency, at least amongst readers of English. British and Australian stories a little less so, they make you work a little harder. But writing about New Zealand in the way that I do is only something I could do from here, which, even if it only matters to me, will always be a very strong reason to keep this blog going.

However things are both simpler and more complicated than this: because the problem of origins and of the essence of one’s belonging is rather like the statue of Garibaldi that is transformed via the application of stucco into a statue of Saint Anthony, at which point you can no longer say with any certainty which is true: if it is a statue of Garibaldi (for after all that semblance came first) or a statue of Saint Anthony (by virtue of its being placed in a church) or both. To this idea, of being an immigrant writer who increasingly feels that he is from here, but isn’t, I am turning my mind to more and more. Time therefore to get transplanted again. We’ll see how it goes.