Tag Archives: Foucault

The memoir police

2 Jun

Derrida Quote

 

A couple of years ago, British concert pianist James Rhodes succeeded in his efforts to have the English Supreme Court overturn an injunction granted to his ex-wife that prevented him publishing his memoir of a childhood in which he was sexually abused.

Hs ex-wife was granted the injunction on the grounds that the book would upset their son, should he ever read it.

Rhodes’ memoir has since been published.

Spectator journalist Brendan O’Neill thought this was a just outcome, however, as he argues in this piece titled Another child-abuse memoir: why can’t the past be private, the injunction should have been a personal one, applied by Rhodes against himself, because people should simply not write “misery memoirs” whose “take-home message is that humanity is ultimately wicked.”

A few days ago, SMH journalist Kath Kenny published this piece titled Our insatiable appetite for women’s tragic stories, in which she expresses her frustration with what she calls a “first-person traumatic complex” or as O’Neill would have it, the misery memoir industry. Apparently it’s virtually de rigueur to disclose traumatic events if you want to get ahead in reality TV or the published world, and people who don’t have anything traumatic enough to relate are being discriminated against.

Then Helen Razer published this piece titled Writers and artists your personal pain is not a blow for justice, in which she argues that the personal is no longer political and, puzzlingly, that we don’t need any more personal stories, we need more bulk-billing, as if one has any effect at all on the other.

Like O’Neill, Razer states her belief that some traumatic tales are too horrifying to be publicly told, and it would be better for everyone if they were kept private. There is, she argues, no longer a possible political outcome from  the writing of the self: that ship has sailed. Whether or not you agree with this statement depends entirely on your definition of the political.

Razer’s piece is more interesting than either of the others, and I believe that out of the three, she is the only one to have written her own memoir of surviving suicidal depression. I learned this from someone who took her on in the comments with barely disguised accusations of hypocrisy.

While none of these journalists have the ability to silence those who choose to write or speak about traumatic events they’ve survived, it is interesting that all three are making a bid to prescribe what our public narratives should and should not accommodate, and to determine what is suitable for public consumption and what ought to remain private. None of the journalists offer any evidence to substantiate their views: apparently they just feel it’s all gone too far, or to be specific, it’s gone too far for their comfort.

I’m not entirely sure how to respond to these complaints from the privileged about there being too many published accounts of private trauma. I think, certainly for women, it has only been possible to write the self at all for the last three decades or so, which in the scheme of things is barely a nano second so it seems a little premature for cultural critics to be telling us we ought to shut up about it.

There is also an enormous amount of scholarly literature on autobiography and memoir, that reveals the genres to be rich and complex. Indeed I wrote my Honour’s thesis on that very topic. For example, who is the “I” who writes? “I am spacious, singing Flesh, onto which is grafted no one knows which I…” exalts Hélène Cixous.

“Writing so as not to die,” observed Foucault “is a task as old as the world.” There are trauma survivors who write so as not to die, either metaphorically or literally. I find it extremely difficult to speak about my childhood trauma. Writing is my liberation, my mastery of what once governed me.

Nobody is forcing anyone to read our work.

To claim that work isn’t political is ridiculous.

To be sure, there’s some bad writing in the memoir genre, as there is in every other genre but that’s a matter of aesthetics and taste. I’m about to read Nick Cave’s The Song of the Sick Bag and after that there’s Patti Smith’s The M Train waiting on my bookshelf. There’s some memoir I wouldn’t go near, which doesn’t mean it ought not to have been written, but that this is a question of interest and personal taste.

It is, I think, mean-spirited and not a little ignorant to complain about others writing memoirs of trauma.

The division between public and private has always worked in favour of the powerful and the abusive. It’s not a little chilling to find our cultural critics calling for a withdrawal of traumatic stories back into the private from which they have so recently been liberated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Truth, employment and freedom of speech.

2 May

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, yesterday proffered this analysis of the sacking of SBS sports presenter Scott McIntyre, after he posted a series of tweets that suggested, among other things, an alternative and previously unspoken view of the actions of the ANZACS.

In her piece Professor Triggs refers to the case of Banerji v Bowles (2013) in which Department of Immigration former employee Michaela Banerji was sacked after tweeting criticisms of detention centres, the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Immigration. Ms Banerji used a pseudonym for her Twitter account, and argued that her comments are “constitutionally protected by her right to freedom of political communication as an indispensable incident of representative government.” The Federal Court rejected this view.

Ms Banerji has now replied to Professor Triggs’ observations on her case here.

I know there are readers of Sheep who are as intrigued by legal forensics as am I, and the arguments made by both parties are of significant import to anyone who is employed and uses social media. I won’t add my comparatively ignorant voice to those of Professor Triggs and Ms Banerji, rather I’m interested in Trigg’s observations on the use of social media and Truth.

Triggs begins her piece with a quote from John Milton’s Areopagitica in which the poet passionately opposes censorship, arguing for freedom of speech. “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” he asks.

Triggs argues that “today’s near universal access to social media challenges the idea that freedom of expression ensures truth will be victorious over falsehood.”  The poet Milton could not have envisaged the extent of free and open encounters awaiting society in its future, and made his observation at a time when only the privileged had access to a public platform.

There are a couple of assumptions in Triggs’ argument that ought to be noted. In claiming that universal access to social media dilutes the possibility of Truth triumphing over falsehood, Triggs, inadvertently I’m sure, is claiming not only that Truth is, as it was in Milton’s time, defined and controlled by a particular demographic who enjoy freedom of expression due to their privilege, but that this is still a legitimate manner in which to determine what is Truth.  Now the masses have unprecedented access to public platforms that democratise freedom of expression, Truth will inevitably be vanquished by the freely expressed opinions of these masses. Whatever is publicly expressed by those other than the privileged and entitled will inevitably be falsehood, is what her argument implies.

Truth is a tricky concept, fluid in the extreme, determined by the orthodoxy, enforced by the state and its agents, and religion and its agents. Social media offers the most expansive and democratic opportunity for the contestation of what Foucault calls “regimes of truth”  that has ever existed in human history.

Truth, argues Foucault, does not exist outside of power:

 on the contrary, truth “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints [a]nd it induces regulated effects of power”. This is to say that “each society has its regime of truth”, and by this expression Foucault means: (1) “the types of discourse [society] harbours and causes to function as true”; (2) “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and (3) “the way in which each is sanctioned”; (4) “the techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth”; (5) “the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault 1976, p. 112; 13).

Therefore, “truth” is “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements”; it is linked “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it”. 

It is the function of social media, exemplified most recently by the tweets of Scott McIntyre, to contest truth regimes produced by systems of power that control and sustain what comes to be normalised as “Truth.” Scott McIntyre, Michaela Banerji and countless others have used social media to contest the constructed regimes of truth, to their cost. Whether these challenges to the orthodoxy are accurate or not, the point is they must be made and in a liberal democracy the people who make them ought not to be punished.

There is absolutely no correlation between freedom of expression and what we might, at any given time, consider to be Truth. The very best we can do is, as Foucault recommends, constantly question the origins of our current regimes of truth, by whom are they determined, whose ends do they serve, what techniques and procedures are valorised for obtaining truth and by whom. Our most powerful weapon for contesting regimes of truth is social media. Professor Triggs is quite wrong: today’s near universal access to social media ensures an unprecedented freedom of expression that in turn ensures an unrelenting contestation of truth claims, and herein lies its power, and its threat to authority.

Freedom of expression has never ensured Truth, not in Milton’s time and not in ours. Social media is a powerful tool for the examination of regimes of truth established by the privileged and entitled, regimes that all too often have little to do with what is true, and far more to do with what is advantageous to those who declare it to be true.

Foucault: Regimes of Truth

 

Mountains. Foucault. The Abbott. And the shrivelled human heart.

29 Apr

After a lifetime of wanting to be close to the sea, in the last couple of years all I’ve desired is to be inland, and particularly in the Snowy Mountains, where I am right now.

THREDBO FOUR

Yesterday, we walked Dead Horse Gap, a venture that necessitates taking the chair lift to Top Station, an activity I usually enjoy, however the lift was closed so we had to take the Snowgum which was slower and buffeted by very high, very cold winds, which I didn’t enjoy at all, and I spent the ascent struggling to control incipient vertigo while Mrs Chook yelled through the howling gale that I should not look down but at something off to the side and keep my eyes fixed on a particular object, none of which advice helped me, as my brain gradually froze from the combination of icy gales and terror, and I could not absorb her instruction. All I could think was “Archie no liiiike,” a phrase we have all adopted since our second youngest family member took to referring to himself in the third person when in situations that seem unpleasant to him.  “Archie no liiiike” I whined at Mrs Chook, and she patted my arm.

I also felt an alarming compulsion to lift the safety rail and jump. Instead, my water bottle fell from my backpack where I had failed to properly secure it, and I had to be nice to Mrs Chook for the entire day so she’d share hers.

In ways I have not yet found the strength to unpick, this could be a metaphor for much of my life.

There is little to compare with the sense of insignificance a human can experience in the physical and metaphorical shadow of a mountain. The Snowy Mountains are not particularly high, as I remarked to Mrs Chook we were closer to the blue dome in Mexico City, if you could fight your way through the layers of toxic smog, but in these mountains the combination of wild, impersonal beauty, imperious height, absence of human intervention, and isolation works to remind one that we are always and forever at the mercy of the natural world, a reality politicians would do well to acquaint themselves with by, in my opinion, being made to spend a certain number of days every year in a challenging wilderness as part of their job description. THREDBO SIX

 In my gloomiest moments I feel certain we are ensuring our own destruction not through more world wars, but through our abominable disregard and despicable destruction of the planet that provides us with the only means we have to sustain manageable lives. This catastrophic behaviour makes us the most ignorant and wilfully stupid species in the known universe. But there’s no convincing deniers. One might as well attempt to convince the religious that their god is imaginary. When unexamined belief and ideology hold sway, change of any kind is impossible, as these two influences are so mindless as to willingly engage in the perpetuation of their own destruction, rather than question the tenets of their faiths. If you don’t believe me, look at the ALP.

One of the most valuable things I ever learned was to question the structures of my life, rather than blindly accept them as the conventional wisdom that is so often nothing more than an obstacle to fresh ideas and new ways of living, a protector of a status quo rather than any truth, and for that, I thank feminism as it used to be, before it was colonised by capitalism and mainstream politics and reduced to the pitiful shadow of its former self it is today. I also thank Foucault, and I came down from the mountains late yesterday exhausted, and determined to read yet again Foucault (and others) on the limit experience, which is, in short, voluntarily undertaking experiences that seem at first impossible in their intensity, and extremity, whether physical, mental, or emotional, as a method of breaking through the treacherous barbed wires of received wisdoms of ideology, religion and other conservative monoliths, to see what one might discover on the other side. These are times in which it seems to me some of us ought to be doing this, if anything is to be salvaged from the wreckage unmitigated capitalism and the crippling rituals of conventional society leave in their vile wake.

There are no prescriptions for limit experiences, obviously one must discover one’s own personal barbed wire fences and seek a way through them, as I think the Dalai Lama once said, or was it Gandhi, I don’t recall, societal change always begins in the individual human heart, something something, something, and  I think it’s indisputably true. Of course, one does not fight one’s way through barbed wires without incurring injury, which should not deter, because even if the wounds kill you, at least you’ve made your small bid for human progress, and what else is the point of life?

And this to me is the crux of my opposition to Tony Abbott and his ugly gang of repressed and repressive conservative thugs. They are the self-appointed guardians of the status quo, driven entirely by their ideological beliefs, and they will see us destroyed as a society in the service of their ideology. They are at their happiest behind the barbed wires, and they intend to herd the rest of us into secure compounds they determine most suited to the crass stereotypes with which they populate their limited world. They reduce the vast array of human possibility to that which best suits their ideological purposes, with no regard for difference and variation. They are the dark side of human possibility. They are the people of the shrivelled heart, and it is their intention to shrivel all hearts, because the un-shrivelled heart is their greatest enemy.

When I was finally released from that bloody chair lift, I was completely disoriented, I could have been anywhere bitterly cold and miserable, with no direction home. I then found I was faced with a long and practically vertical hike to the beginning of Dead Horse Gap, the icy gales still whipping me about, searing my skin, bringing tears to my eyes, cutting through my clothes. I almost gave up. I knew there was a several kilometre hike across the top of the mountains before there’d be any protection from the weather. There was Top Station just above me, the cafe where I could drink hot chocolate with marshmallows then catch the chair lift down and bugger the walk. But could I look myself in the mirror if I piked? No, I bloody couldn’t. My heart was shrivelled with cold, and the aftermath of fear.  Nobody would give a toss if I did or didn’t do the walk down to the snow gums’ silver skeletons, still recovering from disastrous bush fires, to the last of the summer daisies in the water meadows, beside the Thredbo river swollen with rains, coursing with heart-swelling clarity over brown stones and pebbles and pale, gritty sand.

Why do we do these things to test, to challenge, to overcome, in short, to grow our hearts? And why must we resist with everything in us, Abbott’s determination to make us the smallest we can be?

Because we have to, for as long as we are alive. Because Archie no liiiike the shrivelled human hearts. Archie no liiike.

Archie & Ted

 

 

Changing the gender paradigm: it’s women’s work

24 Jun

Changing the gender paradigm, in On Line Opinion today.

An essay on women in the workplace, baby clothes, pitfalls in the social process of gendering, and Foucault’s analysis of hegemonic manipulation. Enjoy!!!

%d bloggers like this: