Monday, May 28, 2012

Airports (2): Changi International

It has a free cinema that never closes, a tropical butterfly enclosure, indoor gardens and a hotel that charges by the hour. You can visit it in virtual reality or check out its dedicated page on FourSquare. But to actually get there you’ll have to book an international flight. It is not a place for residents, other than the thousands of people who work there. It’s like a gated transnational citadel inhabited by a vast transient population of weary world travellers.

I am beginning to get quite familiar with Terminal 3 of Changi Airport. I mostly travel with Singapore Airlines these days, which is the cheapest carrier on my particular route but also an excellent airline in terms of comfort, and you learn to appreciate that. The airport too is above all that – comfortable. It is vast but not in supremacist fashion, and unlike, say, Dubai airport, it seldom makes overt attempts to dwarf the puny traveller. (With the possible exception of the large halls on the ground floor. This is the best picture I could take of the one adorned with Han Meilin’s giant sculpture entitled 'Mother and Child'.

Here, why don’t you go fill out your departure card next to those towering guardians.)

However generally the architecture, even in the larger spaces, is more welcoming than that. And for an airport catering primarily for the budget traveller, Changi has unusually good facilities – ranging from free to relatively cheap – to help you get some rest without having to crash on the floor in a corner somewhere. New this year: the Snooze Lounge.

Okay, it’s just a dozen or so chaise-longues placed behind a screen, but if you’re the kind of person who is able to sleep in public it might save you the cost of the airport hotel. (Regarding which, see this old post. We got another room just like that one this time, with an identical curtained wall.)

Changi is also fairly unusual in having actual non-commercial amenities: a small cinema with free entry showing the kind of films you might see on a long-haul flight, a series of pretty and peaceful gardens and a large butterfly enclosure that my son rather enjoyed. He took this picture of a butterfly eating sliced pineapple in the middle of the night – now how many people can say that? – although I worry that he might have blinded the creature in the process.

All in all, this is an airport that doesn’t give the impression of being in the sole business of shunting you around or extracting money from you, which is probably the reason why it gets so many awards, and as likely as not makes commercial sense as well. Because once you’ve done one or two of the free activities and you’ve had a little rest, chances are you will be fairly well-disposed to march through the mile-long strip of shops that Terminal 3 has to offer. On this count Changi doesn’t differ from any other large international airport I’ve been through: it is perfumes and ties and consumer electronics and high-end clothing and accessories, with the usual predominance of Western global brands.

The lifestyle imagery seems to have settled over the last few years into a gendered mix of nameless, slightly terrifying post-human women

New. CyberWhite Brilliant Cells.

and arch-famous men, brooding and soul-less.

Any of these pictures could have been taken at any time in the last four years. That is how long Terminal 3 has been operating and also coincidentally how long I’ve been acquainted with it. It’s an interesting time span, for you might expect to see change in such a place as a result of the great financial crisis. Above all you might expect those almost unbearably white images of ideal beauty and elegance to have less of a total hold, and for the shifting balance of economic power to start being reflected in how global capitalism itself is marketed to the international traveller. For there is another picture that I didn’t take during this last trip, and if I had it would hardly give a sense of the scale of the thing, but I have it very much in my mind as I write this post: it’s the aerial view of the port that we caught at one in the morning. Although it was the same shade of black as the land, we could tell that it was the sea beneath us. It had its own shape, and the lit up structures on it were not as thick as buildings on land and were scattered in a peculiar way. Those lights belonged to hundreds of tankers and container ships, stretching as far as the horizon.

The port of Singapore is the world’s largest in terms of shipping tonnage, and this is how busy it was at one in the morning. The spectacle of its activity spoke of a very different economy from the one apparent inside Terminal 3 at Changi Airport: no longer the highly symbolic, late postmodern economy that sells the image of the cybernetic woman in order to move tiny bottles of absurdly expensive perfume, or the image of the socially conscious playboy film star in order to hawk the world’s most prestigious watch, but an economy of things. A fifth of the world’s shipping containers. Half of the world’s supply of crude oil. An unfathomably vast quantity of stuff, some of which to be sure must have an emotional content, and be subject to intellectual property laws ensuring that the profits keep flowing to the old centres of Western power for a while longer. But in those quantities, when they ship by the containerful, even the products that currently most define our affective relationship with brands – the iPhone and the iPad – turn back into objects, mere slabs of glass, metal and plastic that couldn’t possibly be as different from other slabs stamped with different logos as we have been vehemently led to believe.

The sight of the port of Singapore at one in the morning convinced me of two things: firstly, that we don’t live in a post-industrial world; secondly, that the image of a global economy based on the exchange of symbols and the almost-as-flawless transmission of bodies produced in sites such as Terminal 3 of Changi Airport is nearing the end of its useful life. Perhaps postmodernity was an interlude, a confidence trick, and modernity is the Port, the place that things must go through, like so many other places throughout geography and history. We who look at it as we fly overhead are the unreal ones, the cyberwhite creatures they use to sell things.

Part one of this series was Dubai.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Signs of Discomfort

This is a story set in New Zealand but hardly peculiar to New Zealand. Its template is a very familiar one: residents of cities with a high influx of migrants express discomfort at the growing number of businesses that cater solely or predominantly for the migrants as opposed to themselves; and that discomfort gets reported on not with the tacit or manifest disapproval that the most respectable segments of the media are still expected to attach to racist utterances, but rather with sympathy. So much sympathy in fact as to become a legitimate subject of debate. Thus the finding of a study by Massey University researchers Robin Peace and Ian Goodwin that ‘Ethnic signs [are] a worry for Kiwis’, becomes a forum topic (‘Should all business signs be in English?’) and an instant poll (‘Do business signs that aren't in English make you feel uncomfortable?’) which then produces a second report validating the original finding (‘Ethnic signs: Poll confirms Kiwis uncomfortable’).

It is an object lesson in how mainstream Western media treats race and both describes and modulates attitudes to multiculturalism. To proceed in backward fashion: of course the Herald’s ‘poll’ doesn’t really confirm the discomfort of ‘Kiwis’, since it isn’t a scientific poll (meaning that it has a margin of error of plus or minus everyone) and its definition of ‘Kiwis’ is pre-selected to include only the subset of Herald online readers who will readily answer such a loaded question. Considerable liberty is also shown in the use of the word ‘ethnic’, which wasn’t in question. This for instance is a ‘business sign that is not in English’

It’s not in Italian either – that’s not how you spell caffè. Pretentious gits.
but I bet that it’s not what the ‘Kiwis’ who answered the poll were thinking of, and furthermore that it’s not the kind of sign that would produce discomfort in the self-selected sample. Here I am happy to concede that Peace and Goodwin have chosen a legitimate topic of research, for there is no doubt something to be learned in how these attitudes reflect the degree in which contemporary societies identify economic activity with culture and negotiate these terms. The ‘problem’ with shop signs that aren’t intelligible to ‘Kiwis’ is precisely their refusal to speak to the regular consumer, who is therefore excluded from those particular economic exchanges. Conversely the people whom these signs speak to become qualitatively different subjects, no longer placing themselves in the position of the outsider who aspires to cultural assimilation because it is no longer the only option available to them. This, I am willing to further concede, may in fact produce something akin to discomfort – although that may be altogether too polite a word – in some sectors of the population. But it’s a sentiment that begs first and foremost to be critiqued, as opposed to validated and amplified as the New Zealand Herald did (much as it was probably a secondary aim to the conversion of that single news item into thousands upon thousands of delicious page impressions. However this aspect, too, of how news don’t get so much reported as exploited, is far from irrelevant to understanding these issues).

Later in the week the Herald carried another piece which reported – this time mercifully sans sympathy – the views on Māori of Louis Crimp, the main donor of the neoliberal ACT party. One sentence stood out in particular:
All the white New Zealanders I've spoken to don't like the Maoris, the way they are full of crime and welfare.
This time we were spared the instant poll, nor did the paper ask us for Our Views. We are encouraged to own and share our discomfort, but it seems that outright hatred and prejudice are sentiments beyond the pale, at least when they are expressed so crudely. I wonder however if the first part of that sentence might help us rephrase more precisely the question put out earlier in week, for who are those ‘Kiwis’ asked to express their level of discomfort concerning non-English business signs if not the white New Zealanders that the Herald spoke to (or who were willing to speak to it)?

As a peculiarly infantilised expression of default personhood in New Zealand, ‘Kiwi’ most often means in fact Pākehā, but has the distinct advantage – from the perspective of white New Zealand – of not being a Māori word. It is therefore implicitly less confrontational, more cheerful, less loaded. We (white New Zealanders) own it. And it doesn’t matter that, as John Moore has argued, attitudes of prominent Māori activists such as Annette Sykes on this particular issue can be just as chauvinistic as that of the average Pākehā. That is very much a separate question, with a more complex answer. Ultimately, the people whose discomfort matters to the New Zealand Herald are the 'Kiwis', understood not as a bicultural – much less multicultural – entity, but rather as the addressees of Don Brash’s Orewa speech, and who therefore include not just the ACT party but also of much of the rest of the Right and not a few people on the Left, that is to say the equal-in-law New Zealanders for whom the only legitimate privilege is economic privilege, is class privilege, which just so happens to be disproportionately white privilege. In fact this obstinate racial fissure (a sorry if not downright inconvenient historical legacy to the pious liberal; an irritant to the braying arch-conservative) won’t be overcome until every citizen gets equal treatment, and every last vestige of positive discrimination – including the provision of welfare to a segment of the population that heavily skews brown – has been abandoned.

The Tories are working on this, abetted by an Opposition that is just as keen, if not keener, to use the word Kiwi to construct its uniform (that is to say, middle class and white) referent. Together, these political forces and the media have seized upon that discomfort as the means of articulating racism with respectability, and of presenting the racist subject as asking for nothing more than fair treatment, as opposed to the further entrenchment of its privilege. The mock-psychoanalytic language of feeling is a key to this move, for a feeling such as discomfort – unlike prejudice, unlike hatred – can be true or false, that is to say genuine or faked, but is neither right nor wrong. We feel the way we feel, and the way we feel – in an elegant twisting of the meaning of the word democracy – produces right and wrong. Thus when its own Attorney General brands a measure discriminatory, the Government, in the person of the Prime Minister, can retort that it doesn’t matter, because the measure is popular. People or, rather, Kiwis feel good about it. Conversely, when enough Kiwis feel uncomfortable about something, then it does not behove us to question the feeling or investigate its roots, but rather to treat that something as a political problem to be solved as a matter of priority.

The current moves to standardise and privatise education – including measures aimed at making public schools run on a private model to the benefit of the children of the ruling class – also originate from the politicisation of an emotion, namely the insecurity common amongst parents who fear that their children will not be equipped to thrive in tomorrow’s job market. This has nothing to do with the actual shortcomings, real or imagined, of the education system, and everything to do with diffuse and well-founded anxieties concerning the economic system, but the misguided, misdirected response – fixing education – has the virtue of addressing the point at which the emotion manifests itself and becomes intelligible. In this respect politicians follow the same script as journalists, amplifying these feelings and recycling them directly as political statements. The result is a politics dominated rhetorically by the figure of the non sequitur, as befits its lack of analysis and its reliance on inchoate expressions of the electorate’s state of mind.

One of the principal effects of this politics of feeling is to disable social forces and actors. A citizenship reduced to its emotions is incapable of real aspirations, let alone of formulating demands or strategies, and is only capable of thought in the very limited sense in which a focus group can be said to think, that is to say by responding in positive or negative fashion to elementary inputs. At best such a citizenship can ultimately hope to feel better, according to parameters that it doesn’t get to define and as a result of actions that it doesn’t get to take.

None of this, of course, is remotely new, but as I said at the beginning this isn’t a uniquely New Zealand story, nor an original one – just one that happens to make some of the mechanisms that govern contemporary public discourse particularly easy to observe. The task, just as obviously, remains that of reconstructing the excluded social actors against this remarkable convergence of media and politics. Be prepared for a lot of people to feel uncomfortable about that.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Interviewed by The Dominion Post after signing a referendum petition last Friday, Wellington commuter David Lamborn had no difficulty explaining his opposition to asset sales:
There doesn't seem to be any good logical explanation for why they want to do it, it's just based on ideology. I would rather retain them for future benefit for all New Zealanders rather than just a few who can afford to buy shares.
That is what privatisation means: removing assets from public ownership, where they can benefit the whole of society, and placing them in the hands of those who can afford to buy shares. However this is not what privatisation means to the principal political forces that are opposing the proposed sale of a 49% share of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand. To these parties, the evil of privatisation lies in the risk of foreign ownership. Thus in his opening statament for the launch of the referendum petition, Labour leader David Shearer is quoted as pledging that
Labour will stand up for New Zealanders and make sure that we keep our assets and our future in Kiwi hands
while the Green party has filed its opposition to asset sales under the ‘foreign ownership’ section of its website, along with the logo of its campaign against land purchases by overseas investors.

‘Own our Future’. ‘Keep it Kiwi’. The crude approach to economics and sovereignty encapsulated by these slogans is clearly seen by the two main centre-left parties as an election winner and the best strategic response to the Tories’ privatisation agenda. However the glaring problem with this strategy is that it buys wholesale into a right-wing analysis of the problem. Witness for example Labour’s attack line against National in the lead-up to the last election based on its doubtful assurances that ‘Mum and Dad investors’ would be the main beneficiaries of the sales, which saw the party both conceding the existence and virtuous nature of that ghastly political subject – the mumanddadinvestor – and implying that a privatisation mechanism that actually ensured the outcome touted by National may be acceptable to progressives.

Of the two parties, Labour was always going to find it more difficult to articulate a stronger opposition to asset sales, seeing as it is responsible for introducing the State-owned enterprise model and has never reneged on that policy. All of the companies currently slated for partial sale are SOEs, meaning that they are already run like private companies mandated to return the maximum profit to its shareholders – which just happen to be us. But this is already a form of privatisation: for the profits in question are extracted from the public in regressive fashion, and the resulting revenue allows the government to moderate the taxation of income, which is progressive. Thus SOEs serve the interest of the wealthiest among us, whilst never being required to produce a social dividend. The case of Folole Muliaga remains sadly very emblematic in this respect.

Asset sales are simply a further round of privatisation, increasing the transfer of wealth towards the ruling classes and allowing for some of this wealth to flow out of the country altogether – either in the hands of foreign entities or in the bank accounts of New Zealanders who should opt to take their money overseas. This capital outflow would have material consequences for our economy, but by focussing on this single aspect to the exclusion of everything else, Labour and the Greens are passing up on the opportunity to mount a broader class-based critique of the sales, as well as placing themselves in the curious position – for ostensibly progressive forces – of having to pander to anti-foreign sentiment to garner the requisite level of support and keep the issue alive and at the centre of the political debate.

For those who think that the charge of xenophobia against these campaigns is misplaced or disproportionate, I defer to Dougal McNeill’s brilliant dissection (and compelling historicisation) of the rhetoric around the Crafar farms. For my part what I’m mainly concerned with today is reconciling the debate around assets sales with the response to the most recent measures against beneficiaries announced by the government.

Firstly, the offer of free long-term contraception to female beneficiaries and their daughters: a move that can pass as fair and reasonable as opposed to grotesquely coercive only in a country that has lost all capacity to understand and debate the power dynamics between the State and the citizens who most depend on welfare for their survival. On this issue Labour was simultaneously chastised for responding and praised for not responding to what was portrayed by more than one political commentator as an artful distraction ahead of the budget. As a point of fact Labour did respond, and through no less than its leader, who argued that women in the scheme might feel intimidated by case workers into accepting the procedure and questioned why men weren’t targeted – which is more or less what Metiria Turei of the Greens said, if somewhat more forcefully. Turei also responded at the earliest opportunity to suggestions by Social Development and Employment Minister Paula Bennett that beneficiaries may be required to vaccinate their children or risk having their payments discontinued, a measure every bit as provocative as the previous one in its manifest aim to constrain the rights of some citizens in exchange for the State support that they receive.

Whether or not the likes of Vernon Small are correct in their claim that public opinion strongly sides with the government on these kinds of issues (eight out of ten Sunday Star Times readers do just that, a statistic tempered by the fact that ten out of ten of them consider the Sunday Star Times a legitimate source of news), liberals can in fact generally be depended upon to muster a response, as was the case here. However they’re also liable to vastly underplay the crass class war character of the measures, which is what enables the Tories to set the terms of the debate. Outside of the unions, much of the institutional Left in New Zealand has lost the vocabulary, let alone the willingness, to describe phenomena in terms of their class dimension. But discrimination and exploitation aren’t the same thing, and the true test for a Left worth its salt lies in its capacity to mobilise against both.

Image by Simon Oosterman

Take Ports of Auckland Limited, a council-owned entity that operates like an SOE at the local level, and Labour’s comprehensive failure to deal with the issue, from the conduct of its Mayor, Len Brown, down to the fence-sitting of party leader David Shearer and his timid and belated support for the locked out workers when the Left took to the streets. Throughout the dispute the bourgeois commentariat insisted of course that the Labour party should run away from labour issues, and that any suggestion to the contrary would smack of ideology and run afoul of the public. But aside from the customary inability on the part of said commentators to see the beam of free-market ideology in their own eye, the problem with this viewpoint – and with Labour’s conduct – is that it woefully misunderstood the political moment. To have come out strongly on the side of workers in the Ports dispute would have helped Labour articulate a far more coherent stance in the fight against asset sales, and be more incisive in its attacks on the government’s failure to stem the exodus of workers to Australia. There was a lesson to be drawn and questions to be asked on the nature of the public good and on the virtues of a system that produces the imbalances of globalisation within a single country, pitting Auckland wharfies not against those of foreign ports and lower-wage economies, but against their counterparts in Tauranga, two hundred kilometres down the M2. Welfare reform, too, would have come into sharper focus, since the attacks on workers and unions and the attacks on beneficiaries and women belong to the same political agenda, and are never mere distractions standing in the way of something more important, not even the government’s core economic document.

I am of course speaking hypothetically. It would be unaccountably naïve to expect Labour to be that opposition party and to seize upon such a narrative. Even if that living, breathing counterfactual – the opportunistic David Cunliffe, former paladin of public-private partnerships – were somehow to be magicked into the leadership, he would be faced with the task of marshalling a caucus that wants nothing to do with any of that. The Greens, for their part, keep alternating a stronger and broader commitment to progressive politics on a number of issues to what appears like a steady rightward drift. We are stuck therefore with owning our future and keeping it Kiwi, and a politics painfully out of step with the radicalisation of left-wing oppositions elsewhere in the West and with the magnitude of the economic and social problems facing the country.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Airplane Film Review

I envy critics who have the time, or make the time, to watch every film that is commercially released in their country. I enjoy reading the reviews of Dan Slevin now that I live in New Zealand just like I used to enjoy reading those of Morando Morandini back home and, much as I continue to take pleasure in close readings, I find something commendable in having a little bit to say about everything. Besides, the comprehensive survey – in film as in literature and most other areas of the arts – continues to strike me as a commendable and appealing cultural project. If only I could find the time.

Long-haul intercontinental flights replicate, for the space of up to twenty-four hours or so, the conditions enjoyed by the full-time critic of a generalist bent. These days you don’t just get a smattering of new releases and some cartoons for the kids: most airlines offer a broad range of films from four or five national cinemas, and a more limited but eclectic selection of older titles as well. They also manufacture a unique viewing environment in which you sometimes find yourself watching three or four films at the same time. This is because whilst with today’s individual LCD screens you generally can’t see what your neighbour is watching, you can see very well what the person sitting in front and across is watching (think of how the knight moves in chess), and if you have an aisle seat one or two more as well, depending on the angle and which seats ahead of yours are reclined. This is how I saw (the verb is apt, since I didn’t hear a word) Underworld: Awakening and Sophie’s Choice on my flights home to Italy and back last month, as well as a couple of eye-poppingly violent films – one Chinese, one Korean – in the action/mobster genre. There is also the one time I chose to sit through Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and the two or three times I saw it on somebody else’s screen (it was the popular choice on both legs of our journey).

These unusual arrangements mean you get to appreciate some trends in contemporary filmmaking, and occasionally compare them to older trends as well. In the always interesting chapter of how American cinema deals with the financial crisis, for instance, Underworld: Awakening, with its all-but-guaranteed ROI and utterly tired and tiresome digital monsters, seemed every bit as relevant and topical as the Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy vehicle Tower Heist, whose purported satirical target is the greed of the financial investment industry but can’t help to stereotype to the point of mockery both its blue collar heroes and its Bernie Madoff character, dutifully phoned in by Alan Alda. There was by contrast more to like in the gimmicky Going in Style (1979), a film about three pensioners who decide to rob a bank, whose central message – that old persons in America have better chances of assured welfare and social recognition in prison than on the outside – is delivered with a lightness of touch that it is rare to encounter nowadays.

On the subject of Underworld: Awakening, the concurrent encore screenings of the original Matrix, and the scenes with the leather-clad Carrie-Ann Moss in particular, document the origins of its remarkably persistent aesthetic as well as how little that look has had to be updated (because nobody bothered, or needed to bother). Thus the blending of the films in the flying multiplex correlates to the remarkable sameness of the majority of the films themselves: those that feel like you have already seen them alongside those you actually have seen; those that you only need to watch for the first five minutes and then you can fast-forward how they go in your head (and if you actually fast-forward through them, it turns out you were right); most of all, those that go to extraordinary lengths to produce the least uncomfortable outcome. Take Mr and Mrs Smith: The War of the Roses meets a less homoerotic version of Assassins meets the latest issue of Woman's Day, made progressively worse by a string of potential turning points in which it seems poised to become a different kind of film, perhaps not entirely original but at least capable of making a slightly more lasting impression. But no: it has to end in the decade’s one thousandth balletic shoot-out, eschewing even the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid option on which I had pinned my hopes until the very last.

A seemingly endless succession of scenes already seen, films ending and restarting around you in a loop until getting through the ones you’ve chosen turns into a more and more strenuous assignment for the oxygen- and sleep-deprived. Before that point, before the twentieth-hour nausea set in, I had actually enjoyed two or three things, including Ghost Protocol. Ever since the famous scene at Langley in Mission: Impossible, the signature of the franchise has become the vertical climb, or drop. In this last instalment the sheer walls are those of the tower known as Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the perfect surface for Tom Cruise’s character to tread unseen since the crisis left so many of its apartments famously empty. In Ghost Protocol it’s the firm itself that is at risk of foreclosure, and the threat is nuclear annihilation via the old but not quite retired Soviet arsenal. A salvaged plot making use of recycled characters and themes using for its centrepiece the cathedral erected in honour of the financial crisis: what could be more appropriate to the present moment?

There is more verticality in the final scene, along with unwitting echoes of Tower Heist (the car moving inside a building, in a space it wasn’t built for). More blending of the films. I wonder if those critics I evoked in the first paragraph ever get confused about what it is that they are watching, or if they ever feel a vague sense of nausea when the lights go off, perhaps for the third time in a single day. I know I couldn’t stomach The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo under those conditions, and had to take two stabs at Chronicle. (Which wasn’t bad, I think, apart from an inexplicable lapse into classical cinematography in the climax. But perhaps there was a rationale for it and I missed it.) Even a retreat into the television section didn’t provide much relief: the one-hour long pilot episode of the Kelsey Grammer series Boss came at me with what seemed like ninety different plots. Then a lone Fawlty Towers, Alcatraz, two Italian films about love and relationships, half of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs because my son insisted on it. By the end of the journey, I was thoroughly done. It’s hard work being entertained, and I got little joy or insight from my comprehensive survey. The time did pass however, and was filled with something other than proper boredom. Which I guess was probably the point all along.