[Updated the discussion about "public" at the end in response to an e-mail question]
The conversation that made me finally sure I’d stop blogging had nothing to do with the Internet. It was a barbecue with family and family friends at my mother’s house on the Gold Coast. One guy, in his late 40s maybe, retailer, was giving me grief. You must remember that because I grew up a smartarse white Australian male, I am well versed in the art of having important-sounding opinions about things without any real experience or knowledge. According to one Uni lecturer in Thailand, we are second only to the gringos in this rhetorical ability, and mastery of it is essential to achieving masculine identity in Australia. So it doesn’t faze me, and I can usually hold my own pretty well shooting the shit back in the hood. However, there are unspoken rules to the game. Most of all, letting someone keep their pride when they overreach. Sure, flat-out declarations of “you’re wrong” are acceptable when a) there is a roughly equal level of ignorance or b) the argument is relatively inconsequential (“did we end up leaving another case of beer in the car boot?”). But it’s not really cool – in fact, it might be unfair and un-Australian – to parade inside knowledge that may leave your interlocutor with their pride wounded. So you get good at lines that subtly say to your opponent “don’t mess with me on this one”.
But this guy seemed pretty determined. As a quasi-host, I felt obligated to have a conversation. After asking what I did, I had barely mentioned “consultant” and United Nations Development Programme before he launched straight into a story about “his friend” who “was doing development projects in Africa” who said that there were millions of dollars floating around the UN, “you’re on a good wicket there mate.” Sensing his friend might be Rupert Murdoch via The Australian newspaper or Kerry Packer via Channel Nine, I suggested that I’d have to find that part of the UN to do some work for, as my experience was that budgets were tight, I certainly received a lot less than market rates, and the US-manufactured oil-for-food “scandal” seemed to have made all their processes fairly paranoid. But he kept it up for another two minutes before I could make it clear that this wasn’t a conversation I wanted to be part of, and that he was asking for trouble. So apropos of nothing at all, he starts up with how South Africa seemed to be worse off under black (democratic) rule! Jesus. I offered that this seemed a common opinion from those who’d left and write opinion pieces for Australian newspapers, but that the residents I knew from a conference last year had a very different opinion. No, it was “just like what’s happening in Zimbabwe.” And I eventually walked off.
If I’ve learnt anything from postmodernism, it’s that its less useful to judge language, argument and behaviour; than it is to try and understand what it can tell us about the domain it’s situated in. In this case, it was nothing I didn’t already know, which is that Australia’s vaunted “public sphere” (the media) has developed a national culture with almost unprecedented belief in the rightness of its own opinions no matter how far they exceed one’s experience or knowledge. As Marcia Langton titled her great essay/book on Aboriginal representation, “Well, I heard it on the radio and saw it on the television”. And this, I realise sadly, is the context in which I learnt to write.
My strongest memory of doing actual academic work in high school involves an instance of my rigorous training in the art of journalistic rhetoric. We had “media studies” as a new discipline. My spunky English teachers also seemed to have some sense of the “public sphere” that we – the smart ones – could aspire to enter through writing, and they genuinely wanted us to succeed. The state curriculum placed a lot more emphasis on analysis than creativity, it was “innovative” and engaged with issues of citizenship and popular culture. We learned that in journalism, as in party politics, there are two (no more!) sides to every argument, and that it was important to understand both of them to be “fair” and unbiased. No Derridean or feminist attention to the constitutive outside of the text and who inhabits it here, which would have grave consequences for me on the occasion I remember. We were encouraged to write (and speak) about contemporary public debates, but were given the “side” we had to argue for. On the topic of immigration, I was asked to develop an argument against it. As you might expect from a member of the school debating team, I did a very “good” job. With an ear for a good line, I made reference to a rabid letter from the local newspaper whose author lamented the “slimy green gobs of spittle that litter the pavement” in areas where “Asians” are visible. There were no “Asians” in the class, of course. And although I served a lot of “them” in my weekend retail job, with no ill will, I never felt any sense of shame about writing this until much later. But I think subliminally, I must have felt some sense of pleasure in this riding the edge of acceptability in order to make a point with flair at the expense of those not present. In other words, at the exercise of cultural power.
Academic excellence had little cachet at my school, for which I am grateful. The cultural capital I had amassed had few willing takers. (University, if ever mentioned, was conceived of as a wholly vocational experience roughly like doing a plumbing apprenticeship). It was my uncle Ted, a gay proofreader in Sydney (who I’d visited four or five times before he died when I was 14) who really got me into reading, and put me onto science fiction, which I guess began the self-conscious opening of my imagination. My own uncertain sexuality would play a role in eventually throwing my subject-position into crisis, and by my final year, punk rock, feminist literature, and anarchist theory would open up the potential for a world outside of the Gold Coast and white Australia. It just took me a while to understand how to get to it. And while it was my writing about music that eventually got me a network allowing an escape from cultural nationalism, it remained a white/male dominated scene where the rhetorical strategies I’d learnt still worked. While in person I would become quieter, less confident, more responsive; in print I was still pointed, aggressive, overblown.
The thing is, if I read now what I wrote in some of those essays from school, that’s my writing. While my “opinions” have changed, and while I have changed deeply as a person, the formal modes of my writing (syntax, tone) all too easily exhibit those well-learned lessons. Those who are familiar with my writing know that I am capable of fully wielding my cultural power through it, should I choose to do so. (And right now, I offer genuine apology for all those who have been on the wrong side of direct attacks!) Despite the very unstable existence I’ve chosen to live with respect to many cultural norms – to paraphrase Spivak in the rest of the paragraph- writing is where I can draw from all of the privileges (which are also losses) that are attached to my cultural position. And they are always already there, even when I attempt to suppress them. One does not unlearn one’s native tongue. And thus it is we who are spoken through language, rather than us speaking it. In print, of course it is worse, as the Other does not respond until we are spent. And while spoken words may heal in time, the printed texts that hurt don’t fade so easily, and we can feel them again and again and again.
I think a large part of my life so far has been an attempt to find ways of undoing this conundrum: the craft I was best-taught and am most proficient in is the activity that brings out my least likeable traits, in which I cause the most damage. This is not a self-protective control-freak procedure (much :) – it is also about the gap between the cultural injustices that seem most important for me to change, and the tools I have at my disposal to participate in that change. On the other hand, at some level I understand (following Lilla Watson and MLK) that my own liberation is bound up with that of the dispossessed. In this regard, I’ve learnt the most outside of the process of my own writing, by familiarising myself with the priorities of people excluded from the power my culture provides. From the oppressed generally I’ve learnt skills in the identification of cultural power, of building collectives, of strategies to create change. From women/feminism I’ve learnt ways to rethink sexuality and the sex/gender system, and how to create change without dominating dialogue, and how to have fun. From indigenous culture and politics I’ve learnt patience, about belonging, about survival, and about knowing one’s place. These people/groups do not have the same relationship with the “public” (white masculinity) that I do, a “public” which is a far riskier space for them than it is to me. My relationships with such people and their cultural material, then, needs to be handled with care. The undoing of cultural injustice from above, if it can occur at all, is surely through building trust among those without cultural power.
Of course, I do think some of these lessons can be codified and transmitted through writing, and that I have a role to play in this, possibly a significant one in time. But the issues of cultural injustice are not quick fixes, even though damage can be done easily through poorly-chosen words. And a bit of historical research and listening to people has shown me that the “public” itself remains deeply and vexedly implicated in the demarcation of valid and invalid subjects. Of course, the demands of the excluded to be allowed to become “proper subjects” are crucial sites of politics. But how does someone born and raised a citizen, with all the implicit sense of rightness that entails, found a politics within this public? Only very cautiously, if at all. Certainly, the writing that is required for me to continue this work has to become more careful than it has been – not only in the words but also where they are used and made available.
So blogging is perhaps not helpful here because it a) encourages me to write quickly; b) it focusses my attention on “immediate” issues – phenomena getting my attention rather than deeper structures; and c) it opens the writing to a diverse public whose unclear orientation to the material makes me feel unsafe (not so much for myself but for anyone else implicated). As an educator, I know that the pathways by which we come to knowledge are crucial for how we read it. Google is a bit lacking in that regard, particularly for archiving thoughts that I can’t guarantee will benefit anyone by their wide distribution.
I’ve learnt some good things from writing this blog – working out the connection between hip-hop and deconstruction, for one thing – and made some good new friends, whose blogs I’ll continue to drop in on and leave notes. I do think blogs have a very important role as a tactical media form. They’re very useful in a) building community, b) being a direct information source of views excluded from organised media, or c) an informal view into organisations or structures of power. These are all processes that feed into longer-run, more strategic questions of situated political action of the type I’m trying to foster. But my writing does not provide any of these great bloggy traits. I already fail to make the most of the communities I belong to – I don’t need to meet any more people! And I don’t really represent a collective voice that needs to be heard all the time. And I’m not working within a structure whose internal workings I can break down for those outside it.
I’ll still post longer pieces, papers, and writings, which I hope will continue to travel and do good work out there in the world. And I’ll keep a space for comments if you like, as well.
But the blog itself is out. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported it. Kia ora.