Sunday, May 30, 2010

For mystery, against religion

In an interview he gave a few weeks before his death, Dennis Potter announced, between swigs of a liquid morphine substitute and drags on a cigarette, that he had named the tumour lodged in his pancreas Rupert, after the Tsar of News Corporation. Potter went on to explain to his rather uncomfortable interviewer that the Aussie media mogul deserved not only detestation but summary execution. Rupert Murdoch's crime, Potter explained, was to have taken an innovative, democratic medium called television and turned it into a particularly strong opiate for the masses. Potter was angry at the way that technological advances can stimulate intellectual regression.

The author of that masterpiece of intelligent television - the phrase did not always seem like an oxymoron - The Singing Detective would be apoplectic, were he able to see the way that new technological innovations are being squandered today. Potter would have been particularly upset, I think, by the phenomenon of facebook, which treats the decentralised, user-friendly qualities of the internet as opportunities not for intellectual and cultural exchange but for repetitive displays of narcissism.

Over the past couple of years I have watched a series of apparently sane members of my social circle retract their denunciations of facebook, create profiles, and begin the primitive accumulation of friends. They stop contributing to blogs like Reading the Maps, where at least a modicum of an argument is expected in the comments boxes, and begin to post almost sublimely anodyne reports on the flux and flow of their minds - 'I'm bored' and 'I need coffee' seem to be refrains - to their facebook 'friends', who are only too happy to respond in kind.

How do I know about the activities of these converts to facebook, if I have taken a position of lofty condescension toward the phenomenon? Although I've yet to succumb to technological determinism and take out a facebook account, Skyler, who embraced the medium reluctantly some years ago, acts as a bridge between me and my departed friends, relaying their laconic reports to me along with her own commentaries. I've also visited some of the facebook profiles and pages that include links to parts of this blog.

For anyone interested in such esoteric pursuits as political and cultural discussion, facebook, with its millions of apolitical, ungrammatical grunts and sighs, might seem like one of the least promising zones of the internet. And yet even at facebook, the tremendous unrealised potential of the internet can be glimpsed. Although many facebookers confine themselves to discussing their last bowel motion or their next date, a few brave souls, like the indefatigable Kiwi-Irish socialist Joe Carolan, use the medium to promote and debate ideas. It might be true that, for their hundreds of apolitical friends, these facebookers are something like dinner party bores, but there are sometimes worse things to be than a bore.

It also seems to me that, despite the best efforts of its corporate designers, the very format of facebook can sometimes spur interesting discussions of ideas. When Skyler recently updated her facebook profile, she was confronted with a series of silly enquiries about her tastes in food and her favourite colours, along with a couple of questions about her political and religious convictions. A lot of facebookers choose to ignore these more serious questions, or else fob them off with non-sequitirs, but others seem to suffer a dark night of the soul, as they struggle to define their most important beliefs. Certainly, Skyler spent a lot of time mulling her political self-portrait, before settling on the phrase 'slightly left of the centre-leftists - "Democratic Eco-Socialist"!!?'

When I mocked the equivocating question mark at the end of her political self-description, Skyler hit back by demanding that I find a snappy label for my attitude to religion. 'You might know what you think about a thousand different varieties of the far left', she said, 'but you shy away from explaining how you feel about religion. I reckon you're scared to join facebook.'

Skyler's comment had some justification. Facebook seems to demand that its users define their view of religion in relatively simple, effectively binary terms. Most facebookers who answer the question on religion seem to pronounce themselves believers of one creed or another, or else simply as 'atheists'. It is as though the parameters for self-definition have been set by the noisy debates which have occurred in recent times between religious fundamentalists on the one hand and the so-called 'New Atheists' led by Richard Dawkins on the other.

After a fair bit of debate with myself, and of course with Skyler, I decided that if I ever join facebook I will describe myself there as a 'non-humanist atheist'. Of course, this rather tortured phrase invites far more questions that it answers. I'm not trying be evasively delphic, by coining such a strange term: on the contrary, I'm trying to be precise, by acknowledging both my lifelong complete lack of belief in a supernatural reality and my complete disdain for 'New Atheists' like Christopher Hitchens who want to see the universe, with all its mystery and wonder, through a prism made out of the dogmas of twenty-first century Western capitalist society.

In the hope of making myself clearer, I'll quote a passage from a letter I recently sent to a very good friend who saw and critiqued a couple of posts I made on the poetry of Christianity near the end of last year. My letter was an attempt to explain to my friend, who is a Christian and who reveres the art of Colin McCahon, why I reject the framework in which recent high-profile debates between believers and atheists have occurred.

'I am atheist but not a humanist. I reject the humanist ideas that the history of our species has some sort of intrinsic goal or meaning, that human beings exist at the top of some sort of hierarchy of nature, and that individual humans can be analysed in isolation from their fellows and from the history and the physical environment that contain them. To quote Louis Althusser, I think human beings are 'constituted from outside'.

I think it is significant that Christianity and other religious traditions have the ability to pull us out of the here and now, and to make us see our lives and concerns within the context not only of a vast sweep of human history but of the concepts of 'eternity' and 'nothingness'. In the hyper-paced, facile, attention-deficient society in which we live, the sort of transcendent power which Colin McCahon found in certain Christian thinkers and artists, and which you find in your own way today, is both subversive and healthy.

But mainstream Christianity seems, to me at least, to have very little interest in the sort of transcendent anti-materialism that attracted McCahon. For the vast majority of its practitioners, Christianity seems to act as a sensible insurance scheme for the afterlife, or a social club, or a means of building self-esteem, or a political cause. Recently I overheard a group of earnest young Catholics discussing an important theological question. When they died, they wondered, would they get to have their pets with them in heaven? So much for Pope Benedict's negative theology-influenced speculations about heaven as a place where time and the self are obliterated!

The media is in the habit of talking about a 'New Atheism', and about a struggle between 'believers and unbelievers', but this sort of rhetoric serves to disguise the fact that some of the most vociferous defenders of the Christianity and some of the loudest detractors of the faith share an utterly anthropocentric, instrumentalist worldview. The loathsome 'New Atheist' Christopher Hitchens, who wants to get rid of God and any concept of morality so that he can justify doing whatever he likes and helping start whatever wars he wants, has far more than he realises in common with somebody like Billy Graham, who thinks that heaven is a place where all-American kids drive cadillacs over streets paved with gold, or Brian Tamaki, who regards Christ as the prototypical businessman.

On the other hand, some of the more sensitive New Atheists - Richard Dawkins, for example, who feels a sense of transcendence when he studies the world scientifically, and who responds to Bach in a way a philistine like Graham or Tamaki never could - perhaps have more in common with 'transcendental' Christians like yourself than is generally appreciated. I don't mean to sound like I'm picking on Christians. The state of Christianity in our society, and in the West in general, reflects not some problem peculiar to the creed but a wider social pattern. Free market capitalism and alienating technology have had a similar effect on many other movements and institutions, both religious and non-religious. A look at some other religious traditions - the absurd New Age cults which pretend to recycle ancient wisdom but actually cater to the psychic needs of neurotic twenty-first century consumers, for instance - shows that Christianity's problems are far from unique. And how about the 'liberated' non-religious humans Hitchens celebrates, who 'worship' on Sunday mornings by visiting the mall and buying clothes or cellphones, rather than by going to church? Are they really any more liberated than Brian Tamaki's benighted followers?

I do want to suggest though - and I did make this point in my posts - that the inevitable contemporary problems of Christianity are exacerbated by key parts of the religion's doctrine. Some of the supernatural tenets of the faith - the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the promise of eternal life to the pious, the claim that prayers can be answered - encourage its misuse. Prayer, for instance, becomes in our crass, instrumentalising society not the profound sort of dialogue with nothingness practiced by Karl Barth or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, but the equivalent of purchasing a lotto ticket, or requesting a pay rise from the manager.

I respect the transcendental aspects of the Christian tradition - the faith's ability to pull humans out of the here and now and to put them in touch with the mysteries of existence, with the vastness of history, with the otherness of death and nothing, and with the beauty and wonder of the world - but reject the religion's supernatural claims. It's not simply that I don't see evidence for the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and so on - I regard the very concept of an omnipotent God and the very promise of eternal life as contrary to the parts of the Christian tradition I admire. I am for Pseudo-Dionysus rather than St Paul. And I think McCahon shared my general position. He embraced some of the transcendentalism and symbolism of Christianity (aka Catholicism), but (as far as I am aware) refused to commit to its supernaturalism.

In his early twenties the philosopher Martin Heidegger distressed his family, who were pious and conservative Catholics, by telling them he was no longer a Christian. When he was asked by a family member why he had abandoned the 'sacred mystery' of Catholicism, Heidegger replied 'I have abandoned Christianity because I believe in mystery and in questioning. Church doctrine puts an end to mystery by giving the essential questions metaphysical answers'. I tend to agree.'

I hope that readers will use the comments box under this post to add their own opinions to mine. If we get a good debate going, somebody might even link to it from their facebook page!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reading, one letter at a time

I talked at the beginning of the week about how hard it is for serial digressors like myself to look steadily and soberly at works of art, instead of appropriating those works as metaphors for some other thing, or as counters to push about in protracted arguments about rarefied ideas.

One man who has no trouble with looking closely at works of art is the poet, Sinologist, and 'wedding artist' Hamish Dewe. Although he tends to look at and write about poems rather than paintings, Hamish's powers of observation can serve as an inspiration for lovers of both art forms.

As a poet and a literary critic, Hamish works with a deliberate slowness. Particularly fastidious writers are often said to work 'one word at a time'; Hamish, though, seems to operate one letter at a time. The shape - or, as he likes to say, the architecture - of individual letters, and the sounds of vowels, consonants, and dipthongs are matters which continually preoccupy him. Hamish's interest in the sounds in our mouths and the shape of our scripts is not the product of some sort of disillusionment with literature's traditional function of creating and communicating meaning. When he writes and reads poems, Hamish is not interested in foregoing argument, narrative, plot, and the other pieces of cognitive architecture in which meaning can subsist - on the contrary, he is interested in how patterns of sounds and shapes can enhance meaning.

Hamish reads with such care, and has so many responsibilities besides the ones he inevitably finds as a careful reader of often carelessly-written literature, that he seldom produces extended pieces of literary criticism nowadays. Legendary texts like his Masters thesis on the American postmodernist and Marxist political activist Bruce Andrews, and his supernaturally attentive study of Joanna Paul's childbirth-poem Imogen, have given way to curt e mails to writers who privately seek his opinion on their work.

I thought I'd post an e mail I recently received from Hamish as an example of the powers of attention he brings to his reading. Hamish sent me the e mail after I sent him a poem I had written about the gruesome adventures of the masochists who attempted to discover a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the nineteenth century. I'd dashed off the poem after reading a review of Glyn Williams' Arctic Passage, a book which describes the Franklin Expedition, which left London full of high hopes and jingoistic rhetoric in 1845, and ended up as a series of shallow graves and a pile of suspiciously-marked bones on the shores of Hudson Bay. Like Robert Burke, who chose a warmer wilderness to invade, and who consequently had fewer opportunities to experiment with cannibalism as a survival strategy, Franklin was a victim of the almost limitless hubris of nineteenth century imperialism.

I'll post my poem, followed by Hamish's response.

Northwest Passage

Our ship froze
before the sea.
Eyebrows turned white,
beards grew as slowly
as lichen, slower than
light. Nature is

We marched west, feasted
on lichen
our boots collected.
When the lichen faded
we feasted on boots.

The first body was cooked
in ice, burned
by frostbite, dissected
by hunting knives.
We sat in a circle,
with our eyes, our mouths

We gave the bones
a decent burial.

Not naff, but a little slight, I think.

I do like the sestina-like repetition that feeds (pun intended) into my sense of the circularity, 'worms that feast on the flesh of kings'-style. I really want to take the 'as' out of "beards grew as slowly". I know it mangles modern english usage, but it flows so much better, don't you think?, and adds to the glacial inevitability of the phrasing. Is there anything to be gained by breaking the aphorism "Nature is / supernatural" into two lines? I do, however, love the phrasing of "We marched west, feasted", just the alternating vowels.

Why does lichen fade, instead of plainly run out?, devoured, gone?

I don't know if it's the intention, but stanza 3, to my mind, gives the victim a sacrificial quality that seems undercut by the coldness of "dissected".

I'm in two minds whether I'd prefer the final sentence to have more of a hurried, throwaway quality (which it would have if given only one line), as if the speaker wants to quickly put this distasteful (another willful pun) episode behind him, or whether it should be expanded and take on the role of explaining and excusing his actions.


Plenty of thoughts, thanks Hamish, and one in particular: would you like to review Emma Smith, a brushstroke at a time?

Monday, May 24, 2010

An announcement - and a warning

After discovering to my dismay that none of the pubs within a five kilometre radius of my digs was open after nine o'clock tonight (what is going on, folks? did parliament go into urgency last night and reintroduce six o'clock closing hours, or are we becoming a nation of teetotallers and wowsers, incapable of supplying sufficient custom to keep a decent infrastructure of bars open, or is it just that this reactionary government's budget and the global crisis of capitalism have hit the country's wallets so hard that we all have to buy six packs of Rheineck or Ranfurly at Cheep Liquor, rather than pay six or seven dolars for a pint and a seat at the local?) I have had to postpone viewing the clash between the All Whites (the name of the team has long struck me as unfortunate, and it seems particularly so now that Rory Fallon has been made into a poster boy) and the Socceroos until this time tomorrow night, when it will screen free-to-air on Prime.

Because I want to preserve the belief, which I hold in the face of all empirically-based projections, that the All Whites might hold the Aussies to a draw, or even, with a little help from the referee or (more likely) from God (might God count as a sort of distant, often-unjust second referee, according to the tenets of neo-Barthian theology?) win by a goal, I am going to abstain from all forms of the internet and the offline media for the next twenty-four hours. If a war or revolution breaks out tomorrow you will look in vain to this blog for instant, ill-informed commentary.

I ask my friends and enemies alike not to attempt to puncture my bubble of hope with phone calls, telegrams, shouted messages at the door, or well-aimed pigeons. I also ask you all not to mock my irrational faith behind my back, as you tune in to Sky Sport and see the smiles of the Aussie presenters, or read of the Socceroos winning by a cricket score in tomorrow morning's paper. Meditate instead upon the nobility of lost causes.

Go the All Whites! Avenge the underarm affair!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Another look at Emma Smith (five notes on an experiment)

1. In a review I posted on Thursday, I talked about the way that many of Emma Smith's paintings seem to exist on the border between abstraction and figuration. In a lot of Smith's works, one or more shadowy figures seem about to emerge from or fall back into an abstract maelstrom of paint. I suggested that Smith's 'borderline' paintings reprise an important but half-forgotten moment in the history of modernist art, when masters like Pollock and Malevich stood on the edge of a commitment to complete abstraction, yet struggled to abandon the delights and perils of figuration.

My review argued that there is a psychic intensity implicit in a style which hovers between figuration and abstraction. Like the portraits of his family Pollock vandalised with broad abstract brushstrokes, or Malevich's pictures of peasants and soldiers slowly dissolving into an abstract landscape of primary colours, Smith's semi-abstract, semi-figurative works suggested to me some radical uncertainty about the nature and stability of reality. The intensity of Smith's paintings seemed to me to resonate with their exhibition on the site of an old mental hospital that once housed intense and troubled writers like Maurice Duggan.

There have been both positive and negative responses to my interpretation of Smith's work. In a series of e mails which also featured anxious enquiries about my progress on Smithyland and boasts about the number of eels he was catching in the stream near his new home, Brett Cross made some interesting remarks on my review:

Emma has probably received a lot of commentary on her work that mentions trauma and mental issues, just due to its style, so probably has very little patience with getting reviewed in that way - and you have been known to romanticise mental illness a little...You used the obvious approach critics might use towards art done in Emma's style - and one she might be sick of...The style of painting she's doing invites that sort of interpretation, sure, but could that be taken as an incentive to find another way to critique it? That might be all the more interesting because it's not taking the obvious path, and could turn up other more interesting analysis. It might be good to do something more.

If I understand him rightly, Brett is suggesting that, along with other commentators, I have too quick to pin hoary labels like 'intense' and 'expressionist' on Smith, and have ignored less obvious ways of dealing with her. Perhaps Brett is also suggesting that I have used allusions to famous painters like Pollock and Malevich and asides about history as ways of setting aside the difficult task of discussing the experience - the immediate, physical experience which is in some ways anterior to art historical commentary and literary allusion - of Smith's turbulent and enigmatic paintings.

What I'd like to do in this post is not to repudiate my review of Smith so much as try to complement it, by returning to her paintings and looking more steadily and closely at them, without drawing attention away to long-dead painters or Auckland history. For a notorious digressor like myself, this will be no easy task! These notes are, then, a sort of experiment rather than a linear argument.

2. I want to consider, as an example of the works by Emma Smith which seem to me to hover on the border between figuration and abstraction, the small black painting called Untitled (Woman), which was produced this year and featured in the recent exhibition at Unitec (I have reproduced the painting at the top of this post). This work is clearly, in some senses, a portrait, yet it seems, on first glance at least, disturbingly incomplete. The legs and torso of Smith's subject can be identified fairly easily, but the head has been obliterated by a flurry of brushstrokes. These strokes form an abstract block of black that contrasts with the expanse of white in the lower half of the painting.

I find myself struggling to 'complete' Smith's portrait by extricating a face and an expression from the darkness that have, seemingly, engulfed them. If I relax my attention, the face recedes into darkness, as the abstract features of the painting predominate. I find that I cannot view Untitled (Woman) as a figurative and an abstract work at the same time - I seem to have to choose one or the other option. I find the work's dynamism - its refusal to resolve itself, to present itself to me as a stable, easily-knowable entity - both troubling and strangely exciting.

I feel a temptation to look away from Untitled (Woman) - from the black paint on white paper that comprises the work - towards the safety, or relative safety, of reference and allusion. It would be possible, surely, to write a whole essay about the place of Untitled (Woman) in the tradition of black paintings, dropping distinguished names like Goya and Hotere along the way. The artist's decision to obscure the face of her subject could be examined, and references could be made to novelists like Kafka and Robbe-Grillet, who denied their characters full names, or painters like Michael Illingworth who preferred masks to faces. The artist's decision to work on a small sheet of thin paper, rather than on something sturdier like canvas, could be discussed at length, with reference to painters like Clairmont who condemned much of their work to a slow death by working on unstable materials. Each of these discussions might be interesting, but each would lead me inexorably away from a direct encounter with the black brushstrokes on that small piece of paper.

What can I say about Untitled (Woman), if I abjure, for the time being at least, detours into the worlds of art and literary history, and other exegetical manoeuvres? I might try to describe the work in front of me in great detail - to measure it precisely, to count its brushstrokes, to compare the quantities of marked and unmarked paper - but this sort of exercise would, surely, become pedantic.

What am I to do, then? I want to try to describe the peculiar effects Untitled (Woman) has on me by turning to a couple of philosophers who have tried to get to grips with the ways humans perceive and interpret images. I don't want to use these philosophers to escape from Untitled (Woman), but to help me appreciate what is going on when I view the work.

3. In his biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ray Monk describes the way the philosopher would stoop, fascinated, with a stick in his hand, over a piece of dirt near the house in Ireland where he lived for some years. As Wittgenstein puzzled over the image he had scratched into the dirt with his stick, his landlady would gaze out the window and shake her head at the strange ways of her guest. The image Wittgenstein drew and examined so obsessively has become famous to philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists as the 'duck-rabbit' composite portrait. In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that we can see the image either as either a duck or a rabbit, but not as a duck and a rabbit at the same time. Whether we see a duck or a rabbit may depend upon the culture we live in, on our worldview, or simply on our mood at the moment we look at the drawing.

The 'duck-rabbit' was important to Wittgenstein because it proved to him that no image is self-disclosing. We do not encounter images without preconceptions, and then passively receive them: to a greater or lesser extent, our minds help shape them.

Wittgenstein's discussion of the duck-rabbit image helps me to understand the sometimes-disturbing dynamism of Untitled (Woman) and some of Emma Smith's other works. Just as I cannot look at Wittgenstein's famous image and see it as a duck and a rabbit at the same time, I find I cannot 'stabilise' Untitled (Woman) by viewing it as both an abstract and a figurative work. I see a figure emerging from and transcending an abstract chaos, or I see the chaos swallowing the figure. And whether I see Untitled (Woman) as figurative or abstract depends importantly upon my state of mind while I view the work.

4. If Wittgenstein's lesson about the nature of perception helps me understand the instability I find in Untitled (Woman), what can account for the curious mixture of excitement and unease I invariably feel, whether I view the painting as either a figurative or an abstract work? I have turned to another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, to help me to grapple with this question.

The University of Auckland's Julian Young is one of the key Heidegger scholars in the English-speaking world, partly because he has the rare ability to explain and discuss the German thinker's gnomically provocative formulations in lucid prose. In his 2002 book Heidegger's Philosophy of Art, Young argues that Heidegger eventually abandoned his early, deeply reactionary belief that art was impossible in the age of modernity, and began to write enthusiastically about modernist poets like Rilke, Trakl, and Celan and about modernist painters like Cezanne and Klee.

Young argues that the distinction between the concepts 'world' and 'earth' is central to Heidegger's philosophy of art. Heidegger uses the term 'world' to describe the reality we inhabit in our everyday lives - a reality whose parameters are set by our technology, our language and our cultural practices. Beneath or beyond our world of houses and buses and shampoo and budget forecasts and scientific hypotheses lies 'earth', a vast, partly-incomprehensible latent reality which is capable of generating very different 'worlds' to our own.

Although our modern 'world' is only one of many different constructions of reality that have existed - Heidegger is fond of harking back to the 'world' of the ancient Greeks, which he considers was very different from, and very much superior to, our own - we tend to forget the partial, contingent nature of the reality we inhabit, and treat it as the only and ultimate 'world'. In doing so, we forget the existence of the mysterious latent reality Heidegger calls 'earth'. (It is important to realise that Heidegger's 'earth' is not supposed to be understood as some supernatural entity created or maintained by a God somewhere outside the universe. 'Earth' is simply the parts of reality our concepts and practices make us unable to perceive.)

Heidegger believes that authentic art can help lead us out of the mental maze within which we live. Although art must, by its very nature, be made up of the perceivable things of our 'world', it can gesture towards the mysterious 'earth' that lies beyond our world, and in doing so remind us of the contingency of our reality, and the possibility of other realities.

Heidegger's concepts of 'world' and 'earth' might seem obscure and mystical, and his belief in the power of art to lead us toward some sort of radically transformative experience might seem, at best, romantic, but Julian Young helps us to unpack the philosopher's arguments by showing that they were products of Heidegger's love of art and the dialogues he conducted with a series of writers and artists.

In a particularly fascinating section of Heidegger's Philosophy of Art, Young discusses the philosopher's admiration for, and unique interpretation of, the paintings of Cezanne. In his last decades, Heidegger often travelled to Provence, the setting for many of Cezanne's paintings, to meet friends and give seminars. Heidegger became fascinated with the dozens of paintings Cezanne had made of Provence's Mt Sainte Victoire, and made several pilgrimages to the peak.

Julian Young notes the way that Cezanne's paintings of Sainte-Victoire often seem to hover on the boundary between figuration and abstraction. Cezanne was always a figurative artist, but as he painted Sainte-Victoire again and again he began to appreciate the abstract quality of the mountain's rocky slopes. Cezanne began to use semi-abstract blocks of colour to express the solidity and depth that the mountain's surfaces sometimes concealed. The stylised, semi-abstract nature of some of Cezanne's paintings of Sainte-Victoire means that, when we turn our gaze toward one of them, our eyes may take a short time to 'recognise' the painter's subject matter. For a moment or two we may see, not a mountain in the south of France, but a tangle of lines and colours - a sort of pre-composition, out of which our minds 'construct' Sainte-Victoire. In the precious, disconcerting moments before we 'see' the mountain, we may notice something analogous to the mysterious 'earth' underlying our limited, constructed 'world'. We may realise that the reality we know is not the only or ultimate reality, but one of an infinite number of possible expressions of the 'earth' which is its ground. This realisation can fill us with terror, because it seems to undermine the certainties by which we have become accustomed to living. It can fill us with wonder and excitement for the same reason. Heidegger was obsessed with Cezanne's paintings of Sainte-Victoire because he saw, in these arrangements of paint on canvas, a more profound exploration of the limits of reality than anything that could be achieved by a theoretical physicist or a rocket-probe aimed into outer space.

Heidegger's interpretation of Cezanne helps me to understand both the excitement and the unease I feel when I view Untitled (Woman) and many other paintings by Emma Smith. Untitled (Woman) achieves a troubling dynamism by combining but not reconciling figurative and abstract elements, and by therefore forcing us to choose, again and again, to treat it as either figurative or abstract. Because we have to choose to see paintings like Untitled (Woman) as figurative works - as depictions of aspects of our 'world' - we are reminded of the contingent nature of our 'world', and of the mysterious latent reality - the 'earth' - that lies beyond our 'world'. This knowledge can be both disconcerting and strangely exciting. When we look at Smith's paintings, we may see a new, higher horizon, or a burgeoning abyss.

5. These notes were intended as an experiment, and I am not sure the experiment has been entirely successful. I began by saying I wanted to look closely at Emma Smith's paintings, and to avoid digressing into the sanctuaries of art history and literary scholarship and other exegetical disciplines, and yet, looking back, I find I have spent much of these notes digressing. Weren't my detours through Wittgenstein's philosophy of perception and Heidegger's philosophy of art simply ways of avoiding engagement with paintings like Untitled (Woman)?

In my defence I'd like to argue that when I turned my thoughts to Heidegger and Wittgenstein I was trying, not to set aside the experience of viewing Emma Smith's work, but to find a way of explaining this experience. Whether I have been successful or not I don't know. I hope, though, that the seriousness of my engagement with Emma Smith's work, both in this post and in the one that preceded it, indicates the esteem in which I hold that work. I hope that other readers of this blog will conduct their own experiments with Smith's beguiling and disturbing oeuvre.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beyond obsolete

Back in the late nineties, when I was busy missing lectures on subjects like Historiography and Art Criticism and Image and Text in the University of Auckland's Art History Department, I was informed by a more punctilious student that painting and drawing were 'beyond obsolete'. Over an enormous cup of coffee at the Wynyard Street Cafe, which was the place where students who abstained from lectures would rendezvous with their nerdier colleagues, my friend informed me that she had destroyed the tremulous watercolour canvases she had been creating ever since she had escaped from her parents' home in deepest Howick to the Bohemian inner city.

I wasn't too unhappy to hear about the demise of the watercolours, which had been burdened with names like Vibrating Intensity and Beyond Within, but I did feel sad when I learned my friend had also destroyed her volume of Hieronymous Bosch prints, with its glossy cover and explanatory essay in French. I'd secretly coveted the book, but it had been casualty of my friend's sudden realisation that installation and conceptual art were the only properly 'contemporary' forms of artistic expression. 'I'm embarrassed I ever painted', she told me, stirring her latte energetically. 'Duchamp made painting obsolete eighty years ago. The stuffed coal sacks, the urinal. He went beyond.'

I've had a soft spot for conceptual art ever since I used it as an excuse to abstain from drawing lessons at high school. After learning about conceptual artists like the Art and Language Group, whose famous 'Air Show' consisted of 'an unspecified volume of air in an unspecified place for an unspecified length of time', I convinced my compassionate art teacher that I would be better off sitting quietly and creating works in my head than painting the stick figures that earned me ridicule from my more gifted peers. With its emphasis on ideas over craft, installation art also seems to me like a good bolt-hole for painters who can't, well, paint.

Even in the late nineties, though, I found it hard to believe that painting and drawing were actually 'obsolete'. Postmodernism may have been all the rage amongst faculty and students in departments like Art History, and Derrida may have been treated like a conquering hero when he dropped into Auckland to give a lecture, but the claim that the austere installations of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Merylyn Tweedy constituted the whole future of art seemed, at best, rather bold. Were works like Tweedy's braying toilet and Emin's messy bed really rich and suggestive enough to act as prototypes for generations of artists? Where was the Giotto or the Cezanne of the installation and conceptual art crowds?

I wondered, too, whether the sheer antiquity of painting and drawing might count in favour of these forms, rather than against them. As the galleries of Lascaux and Arnhem Land show, people felt the need to make patterns on flat surfaces with paint tens of thousands of years before Giotto and Rembrandt and Van Gogh picked up their brushes. Wasn't the very longevity of painting evidence that it answered some need - a need for self-expression, perhaps, or for the transcendence of the self - innate in humans?

A decade after painting and drawing were pronounced dead in the Wynyard Street cafe both forms seem to be enjoying quite an afterlife. Although some important conceptual and installation work has graced Kiwi galleries in recent years - Brett Graham's show at Two Rooms last year deserves special mention - much of our best art continues to come from pencils and brushes, and living painters like Ralph Hotere and Shane Cotton, let alone the mighty dead like McCahon and Angus, continue to enjoy the favours of the art market. It is conceptual and installation art, those supposed harbingers of twenty-first high culture, which appear to be declining in prestige. Even Damien Hirst recently seemed to admit to boredom with his old practice, by exhibiting a series of rather tremulous paintings. The urge recorded at Lascaux seems intact.

Perhaps it is some primal, subconscious urge which leads me out of my warm, book-lined home into a storm to attend the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Emma Smith in a remote part of the dark and sprawling Unitec campus. After a bus deposits me at Point Chevalier, on the wrong side of Unitec, I lean on the gale blowing up off the Great North Road and stagger past the big brick building that once housed Robin Hyde and Maurice Duggan, along with other, less distinguished lunatics and alcoholics. The terminally sensible Victorians who designed Oakley Psychiatric Hospital made sure that the institution doubled as a dairy farm, so that the unpaid labour of its inmates could recoup the costs of iron beds, bowls of porridge and mashed potatoes, and electro-shock therapy.
Now gentrified hospital buildings and remnants of farm architecture - the high fence built around a well, the foundations of a brick milking shed - mingle with the prefab tutorial rooms and brutalist student apartment blocks thrown up over the past couple of decades. I take a shortcut across an old farm paddock too steep and rough to be built on or converted to a football field, then skirt the edge of a shabby organic garden, and find myself on a road which leads out of the Mason Clinic, the maximum security psychiatric unit which is the last living remnant of Oakley, toward the studio in Building 76 which has been made into an improvised gallery by Emma's local supporters. An overloaded datura plant shakes its sinister flowers over the clinic's high wire fence.

I'm a little late and very wet when I finally find an unlocked door on Building 76 and step into the bright noisy room where Smith has tacked up dozens of her bright noisy paintings. The almost perversely inaccessible location of this show and the short time it will run seem somehow appropriate, given the reputation Smith has accumulated in recent years. Although her work has had no shortage of admirers, it has sometimes appeared in places outside the comfort zone of the Auckland art establishment. Smith's paintings have appeared in literary as well as art journals. When she painted a cover for Jack Ross' 'postmodern sci fi porn novel' EMO, Smith seemed to be expressing an affinity with a writer who resists easy categorisation.

The violent, ludic history of Oakley Hospital, with its ice baths and electric shocks and imprisoned geniuses scribbling secret diaries and poems, also seems somehow relevant to Smith's work. The high-walled, almost windowless room in which she stands might be a cell. Her paintings, with their expressive scratches and spirals of colour and eerie captions or titles - I read Girl with a death mask, and Man in hole - might have been committed to the cell walls by some prisoner marking the hours or days that passed between appointments with a staff psychologist or supervised walks amongst the Moreton Bay figs. (Years ago, on a visit to the then recently-abandoned Kingseat Hospital, Michael Arnold and I climbed a rusted outdoor staircase, eased ourselves onto a second floor landing, and saw the words THIS IS THE DYING ROOM splashed in crimson on the inside of a serrated pane of glass. Without looking at one another, we turned and skipped quickly back down the staircase.) The power of Smith's paintings, and their ability to survive placement in an environment like this, is a matter of art history as well as artistry. The biographies of the great pioneers of abstract art often resembles lives of the saints. Obsessive, turbulent men, Mondrian, Malevich, and Pollock made a journey from ignorance, through befuddlement and experiment, to something close to an arid perfection. The great abstractionists were seekers - Mondrian was a Theosophist, Pollock was fascinated by Jung, Malevich turned Bolshevism into a species of mysticism - who became determined to pierce the everyday guises of the world and discover the deeper reality that allegedly existed behind those guises. Their oeuvres are records of their quest, and the works which record them crossing the unstable ground between figuration and abstraction, the world and the truth, are amongst their most riveting. Mondrian's Trees, which begin realistically, stiffen into formalised arrangements of lines, and finally become unrecognisable, record a journey across this strange territory; so too do the paintings Pollock made late 1930s, which began as portraits of his family and were then vandalised with strips of abstract colour until they became assemblages of mutilated, contorted figures.

Because Mondrian and Pollock were teleologists, obsessed with their journeys from realism to abstraction, they tended to discount their 'transitional' works as awkward contradictions. For a long time critics and biographers echoed the judgments of the artist-seekers, but today, when the manifestos and polemics and cosmic ambitions of modernism have moved beyond historical memory, we can appreciate the strange power of works like the Trees series and of violent Pollock canvases like Guardians of the Secret. In painting after painting, Emma Smith returns to and dwells in the territory that the likes Mondrian and Pollock crossed so eagerly. On a piece of paper tacked to the southwestern corner of her cell, a bluebird has been drawn firmly but sparely over a succession of scrawled-out images. We cannot see the images, any more than we can recognise the figures in Guardians of the Secret, but we sense their presence, under the artist's obliterating paint. By concealing them, Smith informs us of their existence. In a small painting a few feet away a girl's hair has grown down over her torso and up over her face, so that it becomes an abstract block of colour that obscures her movements and expression. In other works legs and arms emerge from clouds and spirals of paint, groping about in the chaos for the bodies they once belonged to. Smith handles paint and colour boldly and expressively, and it is hard to avoid comparing her to Philip Clairmont, the desperate improviser who saw his canvases as windows and doors leading out of the seedy forgotten rooms where he lived and painted. Clairmont's contemporary Emily Karaka, who is still turning out massive, recklessly colourful expressions of her pride in her Waikato heritage and her anger at New Zealand history, is another likely influence on Smith.
I grab a beer and wander to a corner of the room, where I find Jack Ross marking his name in the corner of a dark painting from which a child's face almost manages to emerge. 'This isn't the first she's sold tonight', he tells me. 'I want to use it on the cover of a book. I hope she sells well. She deserves to sell well. It's just that...not everyone would necessarily want these on their wall, would they? The work may be too intense for some people...'

The storm is still blowing on Wednesday night, when I wander down to Elam School of Fine Arts to claim my quota of free beer at the launch of Ellen Portch's exhibition Wall. I wrote the introduction to the catalogue which accompanies Ellen's exhibition, but as I move about the new gallery Elam has given the typically recondite name B341 I begin to regret the text. Encased in pale elegant frames that remind me of slabs of Grecian marble, Ellen's bleak yet densely detailed drawings make my asides about English and New Zealand history and my references to dead philosophers seem wholly unnecessary.

With their scrawled cancellations and amendments, Emma Smith's paintings are unashamedly contingent, fragmentary works. By contrast, Portch's drawings are so intricately constructed that it is hard to imagine them in an incomplete state. It is as though the artist has summouned them, fully formed, from some alternative dimension where they had always existed, and perhaps continue to exist.

'I'm not buying a book, sir', a genially drunk Hamish Dewe informs me, as he steps out of the white glare of the centre of B341 and sniffs at the stand Titus Books proprietor Brett Cross has erected on the edge of the exhibition, next to a rapidly-dwindling supply of booze. 'I don't need Hamilton to tell me how to look at a wall.' My pre-publication copy of the catalogue for Wall arrived at the same time as my copy of Point Omega, Don DeLillo's sixteenth novel; I may be fooling myself, but I keep seeing similarities between the drawings of the young, relatively unknown Auckland art teacher and the prose of the elderly, much-decorated novelist. Portch's drawings show a series of dim, cold-looking towers, corridors, and rooms, meagrely populated by mysterious figures; DeLillo's novel begins and ends in a cold, dark room where a slowed-down version of Hitchcock's classic movie Psycho is playing and various figures stand in the shadows, and in between visits a decaying house in the California desert, where two men and a women move about mysteriously. One of the last drawings in Portch's sequence depicts a knife lying on a floor, and shows a body sprawled nearby; near the end of Point Omega, DeLillo describes the discovery of a knife, which may have been used to murder one of the novel's characters, in a part of the desert known by the American military as the 'Impact Zone'. Wall and Point Omega resemble each other not only in their imagery but in their recalcitrance. Both writer and artist refrain from explaining the strange and sometimes violent scenes they offer their audiences. Portch's drawings and DeLillo's prose are clear in their details, but the manner in which these details relate to one another sometimes seems obscure.

The recalcitrance of DeLillo's novel has bewildered many critics, and disillusioned some of his many fans. DeLillo is famous for his surveys of contemporary American society - his 1988 novel Libra examined the tangled, contradictory lives of Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, and other figures implicated in the assassination of John F Kennedy and its aftermath, and his 1997 epic Underworld covered forty years of history and included portraits of J Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce - but Point Omega runs to only one hundred and seventeen large-print pages. The central character of the novel is a former Pentagon employee who was linked to war crimes in Iraq, yet De Lillo treats this part of the man's past only obliquely. Many reviewers of the new novel have lamented the passing of the old, expansive DeLillo.

But if some critics and fans have been upset by the recalcitrance of DeLillo's new novel, others have been excited by the same quality. At, a site where book lovers gather to give each other tips and start arguments, some DeLillo have reported bursting into tears after reading Point Omega, and deciding to read it all over again to try to find out why they were crying.

When I posted some images from Wall on this blog, viewers were divided in a way which reminds me of the stand-off over Point Omega. When one visitor to the blog complained that Ellen's drawings resembled a frustrating 'riddle', another visitor responded by asking an important question:

What’s wrong with riddles? The whole point of Art is that it doesn't spell things out, but leads us on a journey. Good Art acknowledges that the viewer has intelligence and brings that to the interpretation of the work. Art that spells everything out in an instant is pointless - why not just speak the idea. If you think Portch’s work is a riddle you haven’t seen much contemporary art! Her work provides plenty of signs (figuration) for the viewer to latch onto. Use your head and you never know you might be rewarded.

Those few words are the only introduction Ellen Portch's drawings need.

Monday, May 17, 2010

From Israel to the Pacific

There have been some long discussion threads on this blog - Richard Taylor's objections to kickboxing sparked a firestorm a couple of years ago, my criticisms of the Celtic New Zealand crowd have often brought pseudo-historians out of the woodwork and into the comments boxes, and a recent 'debate' over the 9/11 'Truth' movement somehow racked up a couple of hundred contributions - but few threads have been as varied and thoughtful as the one which unfolded underneath last week's post about Tuhoe and the Pakeha left.

I want to apologise for my improvised and often tipsy responses to the many fascinating responses my post drew - I went to an unprecedented number of art launches last week, and made sure I took good advantage of the free booze.

I want particularly to apologise to Wellington anarchist and anti-racist activist Asher Goldman for having taken so long to reply to his careful discussion of the history of Zionism and its possible relevance to contemporary Polynesian nationalisms (you can find Asher's contribution about halfway down the comments thread).

I have argued that the nationalist movements which won independence for Samoa, Niue, and the Cook Islands from the New Zealand state were in certain important ways progressive, and that Tuhoe nationalism might well have similarly progressive features, if it gets a colonial state off the back of an indigenous people. Asher argues (if I understand him rightly) that the example of Zionism and the state it created shows that all forms of nationalism, including Polynesian nationalisms, are reactionary, because they simply replace one set of oppressors and exploiters with another. Along with his fellow anarchist Fydd, who contributed a thoughtful analysis of Tuhoe experiments with capitalism to last week's discussion, Asher believes that the creation of a nation state is a spur to the development of capitalism. As an indigenous 'comprador' bourgeoisie replaces an old colonial elite, the same people who were oppressed by the old order are dispossessed of their land, proletarianised, and exploited. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Whilst I don't have Asher's knowledge of the history of Zionism, I find the thread of his argument about the history of that movement credible. I disagree, though, with Asher over the relevance of the history of Zionism and the depredations of the Israeli state to Polynesian societies like Samoa and Tuhoe Country. I don't see that there is a parallel between the content of Zionism and the content of Polynesian nationalisms, and I don't agree that national independence has always tended to strengthen capitalism in the Pacific.

I can't see how the sad trajectory of Zionism, which began as a voice of a horribly oppressed European minority and became the ideology of a brutal neo-colonial state, has any obvious lessons for Polynesians who use nationalist slogans. It seems to me that Zionism was always very different from the nationalism of, say, the Samoans, because it proposed founding a nation on land possessed by another people. The Mau movement used the slogan Samoa mo Samoa (Samoa for the Samoans), and fought to remove colonial administrators; the Zionist movement may have used the slogan 'A land without people for a people without land', but it was actually advocating, rather than opposing, colonialism.

I think that the Highland Scots who settled in certain areas of Australia and New Zealand - Gippsland, Waipu, and the McKenzie Country, for examples - in the nineteenth century offer a better local parallel to the story of Zionist colonialism. The Highlanders had been driven off their land by the English and lowland Scots, because their largely pre-capitalist, tribal way of life contradicted the logic of the market. The British bourgeoisie wanted to destroy crofting communities, with their long and intricate histories and cultures, and replace them with sheep farms and deer parks.

The Highlanders were undoubtedly an oppressed group, but when they reached their own 'lands without people' they often turned oppressor. In Gippsland, for instance, they waged a war of extermination against local Aboriginal peoples which is only now being documented in all its horror. Although the Highlanders-turned-colonists did not form their own state, nor even, in most places, retain their cultural distinctiveness, their journey from oppressed to oppressor surely parallels that of Zionist Jews.

Asher rightly notes the speedy emergence of class divisions in Israel, where the Jewish bourgeoisie that controls the state uses nationalist and anti-Arab rhetoric to disguise its exploitation of working class Jews. I don't see, though, that there are many parrallels between post-independence economic development in Israel and the sort of development that has been seen in Polynesian nations like Samoa after independence.

The expulsion of vast numbers of Palestinians from the new state of Israel in 1947 and 1948 gave capitalism a boost there. Large areas of land which had once been held under customary title by Palestinian tribes suddenly fell into the hands of Israeli capitalists. This land was often converted to freehold title, and sold to Jewish settlers. In Samoa, Niue and the Cooks, though, independence from the New Zealand state meant the retention of land held under customary title. Samoa's Mau movement had been formed largely because of the attempts of New Zealand colonial administrators to weaken customary title and break up blocks of collectively-owned land. The slogan 'Samoa mo Samoa' reflected the Mau's determination to resist the encroachment of capitalist property relations. When Samoa was finally granted independence, the Samoans inserted a clause in their constitution protecting land under customary title. Samoan independence represented the defeat of the plans of New Zealand imperialists to foist capitalist development on the society they saw as their rightful possession.

Today, the neo-colonialists of the IMF and Australasia want to destroy the legacy of the Mau by breaking up the collectively owned land and doing away with customary title. They argue that Samoa must become a much more capitalist country if it wants to survive in the twenty-first century. In other Polynesian nations like Tonga and the Cooks the IMF and Australasian imperialists preach the same message.

I agree with the Pacific radicals who have rejected the arguments of the IMF, Canberra, and Wellington, and called for an alternative form of development rooted in the retention of collectively-owned land and resources. I think that the elderly Marx's famous letter to Vera Zasulich, which suggests that pre-capitalist forms like the peasant commune can be the basis for socialist development in Russia, offers interesting parrallels with the writings of Pacific intellectuals like the late Futa Helu, who argued that his fellow Tongans had to 'put the horse before the cart', and use traditional, collectivist forms of social organisation as the basis for a type of economic development that reflected the needs of the community, not the needs of the market.

In the post which began last week's debate, I warned about the tendency of the Pakeha left to interpret the complex history of the Pacific using inappropriate foreign models. It seems to me that Asher's attempt to to suggest a parallel between Zionism and the national liberation movements of Polynesia is a good example of this tendency.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The 'First White Marxists' reach Tuhoe Country

In his famous 1965 essay 'The Peculiarities of the English', EP Thompson ridiculed the eternal tendency of radical young intellectuals to assume that everybody older than them is full of outdated ideas. Thompson wrote his essay because he was grumpy with a group of former proteges, led by the Eton graduate Perry Anderson, who had decided that Britain's working class was hopelessly 'backward' in its thinking and culture, and needed to be introduced to the 'rigorous' ideas imported from more 'advanced' countries like France and Italy.

While Thompson's essay was at times unfair - the young Anderson and his friends did have some interesting things to say, and Britain's trade union movement and Labour and Communist Parties could have done with a little intellectual stimulation in the mid-60s - it does sound a necessary warning about the dangers of intellectual arrogance on the far left. In one particularly amusing passage in his polemic, Thompson found an historical analogy for his opponents' ideological zeal:

[Anderson and his circle] are heroic and missionary. We hold our breath in suspense as the first Marxist landfall is made upon this uncharted Northland. Amidst the tundra and sphangnum moss of English empiricism they are willing to build true conventicles to convert the poor trade unionist aborigines from their corporative myths to the hegemonic light...Pulling their snowcaps over their ears, they disembark and struggle onwards to bring the intense rational consciousness of their cutting instruments to the 'traditional intelligentsia'...There is a sense of rising suspense as they - the First White Marxists - approach the astonished aborigines.

I remembered these words recently, when I stumbled upon the intervention of a group of pious white revolutionaries into a discussion about Tuhoe nationalism at indymedia. Where the targets of Thompson's polemic sought to bring the true faith to the 'astonished aborigines' of Britain, the missionaries at indymedia sought to convert the indigenous people of Aotearoa to the creed. Inserting himself into the discussion under an article about Tuhoe's ongoing Treaty of Waitangi negotiations with the Crown, the self-proclaimed 'anarchist communist' and indymedia regular named 'Olly' warned that Tuhoe who wanted their land back were nothing more than capitalist rascals:

any redress [for past wrongs] on the part of the government will necessarily involve co-opting the struggle through the creation of a Tuhoe bourgeoisie, hence the need to 'create a Tuhoe economy'. By a Tuhoe economy we should make no mistake, this means a new Tuhoe capitalism - a capitalism with the added nicety of an anti-colonialist face...

Once again Aotearoa IMC has proved its worth as little more than a stooge for the more disaffected factions of the ruling class rather than a subversive voice which seeks confrontation with the exploitative and oppressive society we are all forced to live under, and which, despite the ernest efforts of both national liberationists and their many cheerleaders, has the unfortunate tendency of constantly reasserting itself.

When a Tuhoe reader responded to Olly by suggesting that he find out more about Tuhoe history and culture, instead of 'spouting middle class theories' from 'aloof' positions, the heroic missionary responded contemptuously:

To be frank, capital doesn't give a damn about cultural practice...

The way forward for Tuhoe is, it seems, straight and narrow. They must abandon their reactionary attempts to regain stolen land, forget about their irrelevant culture, and join Olly's revolutionary organisation of choice, an organisation which surely has, at present, only a tenuous existence in the offline world.

Olly's argument about the uselessness of Tuhoe history and culture to progressive politics was taken up with enthusiasm by another regular indymedia commenter, who uses the rather unfortunate nom de plume 'Madman'. According to 'Madman', all good Marxists realise that Maori history and tikanga is not only political useless but positively obnoxious:

Karl Marx was quite right when he emphasised the necessity to push for progress...We may indulge in romantic ideas about some South Pacific Societies living in harmony, the truth is that they were very much tribal and did not hesitate to fight between tribes on different islands, in different valleys, in some cases even went as far as cannibalism and had a very strict hierarchy...Even in Europe we had our "ancient" times with "Neandertal Man", "Cromagnon Man" and later tribal warfare...The same applies to modern-day thinking about the rights of Maori tribes, whanau, whatever. Once we go down that way we end up again in tribalism, hegemony, dividedness, envy and social hierarchy.

For reasons which will no doubt continue to escape their understanding, 'Olly' and 'Madman' failed to convert their Tuhoe interlocutors to the revolutionary creed. I'm sure that won't stop them, and sundry other members of the online far left, from trying again and again in future threads at indymedia and similar sites.

While Olly's kneejerk opposition to the culture of an indigenous people is hardly surprising - such prejudice is, after all, a perennial symptom of Eurocentric forms of Marxism and other socialisms - I was impressed by the sheer historical illiteracy of his claim that 'capital doesn't give a damn about cultural practice'.

Olly's formulation would be come as a surprise to a lot of the people who brought capitalism to this part of the world. They were always complaining about the obstacles which Polynesian cultural practices created for them. The refusal of many Polynesian groups to divide collectively-owned land into individual title and offer it for sale, the failure of Polynesians to work on newly-established plantations as individuals, rather than in groups, and their tendency to work their own hours, and to clear off for days or weeks whenever an important events like a wedding or funeral was being held - these and many other contradictions between Polynesian culture and the practices of capitalism are noted again and again in the journals and letters of nineteenth century colonisers and business-owners.

Collective ownership of land, collective organisation of labour, and the primacy of kin relationships are central to most traditional Polynesian cultures. They presented, and in some places continue to present, major obstacles to the encroachment of capitalism. There have been many times when the conflict between Polynesian culture and capitalism has flared into conflict.

Many of the conflicts grouped together nowadays under the heading 'the New Zealand Wars' were the product of the contradiction between Polynesian collectivism and the requirements of capitalism. Maori wanted to hold the land collectively and work it; capitalist farmers and speculators wanted to take it and subdivide it. The Mau rebellion which led to Samoan independence from New Zealand was triggered when Kiwi administrators tried to 'modernise' the country by breaking up old collectively-owned parcels of land and imposing more 'discipline' on Samoan labourers. The contradiction between Polynesian culture and capitalism persists today in various forms. The protracted and bitter struggles in parts of the Cook Islands against advocates of capitalism who want to break collectively-owned land into individual pieces and make it available to foreigners for purchase is one sign of the contradiction. Another symptom of the contradiction is the well-publicised failure of World Bank microcredit schemes to influence the economies of Polynesian nations like Samoa and Tonga. This failure has occurred because the individualist cultural bias of the World Bank clashes with the culture of those nations. Loans which were given to individuals were distributed in the kin group; profits which were supposed to be churned back into a business established with a microcredit loan were shared out amongst a village.

In this country, the conflicts within some iwi between those who want to adopt a corporate-style structure, divide up and sell some collectively-owned land, and invest rather than redistribute income, and those who want to follow different, anti-corporate practices are another sign of the continuing contradiction between Polynesian culture and capitalism.

I think that Olly's interlocutor was correct, then, to suggest that Tuhoe tikanga does in important ways contradict the practices of capitalism. And I think that, if Tuhoe were successful in winning real control of major resources from the Crown, this contradiction would make itself felt from within the iwi. Tuhoe versions of Tuku Morgan and Graham Latimer would emerge to argue that the iwi must ditch some parts of its tikanga and embrace 'corporate culture'. They would advocate cutting deals with multinational companies and working with parties like National. They would tell us that economic development can only come through capitalism.

But there are alternatives to capitalism as a motor for economic development. There are examples, both in New Zealand and in other parts of Polynesia, of peoples using modern technology and modern trade networks to develop their economies, and yet retaining collective control of their land and other resources.

In this country, the classic example of this alternative to capitalism is what some sociologists have called the 'Polynesian mode of production', which flourished in the Waikato Kingdom and in Parihaka before those places where invaded and conquered by Pakeha. Using imported technology, the peoples of the Waikato Kingdom and of Parihaka grew food for export to the Pakeha cities of Auckland, Wellington, and Sydney, but they grew the food on collectively-owned land using collective labour. Their economic success and their refusal to sell their land infuriated Pakeha capitalists, and led to their eventual conquest.

The sort of hybrid economy which was developed in the Waikato and Parihaka - using modern technology and trade, and yet retaining collective forms of labour and land ownership - is still seen today in a number of Polynesian nations. It is also being experimented with in Venezuela and in Bolivia, where left-wing governments have returned large areas of stolen land to peasants, some of whom are indigenous peoples, and urged them to use the land collectively, by forming co-operatives or communal farms. There is no reason why Tuhoe could not retain returned land and resources in collective ownership and develop their land and resources for the benefit of the whole iwi. There are already examples of iwi who are opting for the collectivist 'Polynesian mode of production' model of development over the 'corporate' model. Recently I visited a tourist attraction which is sited on land returned to a hapu. The land is jointly-owned by the whole hapu, and the tourism business employs members of the hapu and places an important part of the income it generates into a trust fund run by the hapu. This fund pays for things like tertiary fees and dental treatment for members of the group. Important decisions about the strategic direction of the business are made collectively, by the hapu. It seems to me that the model of economic development being pursued by this hapu is not only consistent with Maori tikanga - it is inconsistent with the dictates of capitalism.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Travel is dangerous: another chat with Carey Davies

I interviewed the EP Thompson scholar, musician, sometime political activist, journalist, and proud Yorkshireman Carey Davies a couple of months back, when he was near the start of his travels around New Zealand. I caught up with Carey again a couple of days ago, when he was about to catch a plane back to summer, a hung parliament, and an economic crisis in Blighty. We talked about the seat-of-the-pants research he has been conducting into the strange condition called tourism...

Carey: I wanted to travel and to research - not just to research the places I visited, but also to research travel itself, travel as a condition -

SH: as a malady -

Carey: as a psychosis! You see, we British are both the best and the worst travellers in the world. On the one hand, we head overseas in numbers that must be unmatched - think about our takeover of the beaches of Majorca and Corfu, think about the whole history of the British Empire, think about the hordes of Victorian so-called explorers getting lost and dying of ridiculous diseases in Africa and Australia...we can't stand to stay at home. It's absurd that so many of us whinge about immigrants coming to our country when we have been pouring into other countries for hundreds of years. So on the one hand we are great travellers, but on the other hand we are awful travellers, because we try so hard, and so comically, to avoid adapting to and learning from the places we visit. We prefer to try to recreate home, in a Potemkin village sort of a way...but I don't mean to demonise Britons. I think you could probably find the same patterns in the way Kiwis travel - in your concept of the 'OE', for example. We've simply done things on a larger scale...

SH: English fish and chips shops on the Spanish coast, for instance -

Carey: We expect the whole world to speak English and drink warm beer. Even our great explorers refused to learn from the places they traversed. That's why so many of them met sticky ends. Scott refused to take dogs rather than good old British horses to Antarctica...the contradiction at the heart of British wanderlust intrigues me.

SH: How long have you been travelling?

Carey: Eight months. I came to New Zealand after Indochina and Australia. Indochina is over-run by Britons and other Westerners. Britons, especially, it seems. Indochina is a popular destination, and also, for a lot of young Britons, a dangerous destination.

SH: Presumably it's not as dangerous as it was forty years ago...

Carey: Do you think Apocalypse Now is a war film? It is really a story about the desire to lose oneself - the river, the jungle, the drugs, the madness, even the war, these are just excuses, background...I actually thought about Colonel Kurtz when I was travelling through Indochina and observing the customs of my fellow British tourists. I travelled alone in theory, but in practice kept joining up with ad hoc groups - it saved money on petrol and on accomodation, and it's safer, sometimes...

SH: What exactly reminded you of Apocalypse Now?

Carey: There is a town called Vang Vieng in the Laotian jungle. I shouldn't call it a town. It scarcely deserves the label town. Twenty years ago it was a swampy bit of jungle beside a river. Then a backpacker discovered that it was fun to ride a tube down some rapids on the river. He set up a resort and a bar. Now there are resorts and bars - I don't know how you tell the difference, as people seem to sleep where they drop when they've had enough to drink - at both ends of the rapids. Vang Vieng has all the history and culture of a truckstop. There's no real trace of Laos there - no temples, no traditional houses...a strange ritual has developed amongst the young Westerners, many of them Brits, who flock to the place...they get drunk or stoned, or drunk and stoned, in the bars at the top of the rapids, then float down the rapids, then drug and booze themselves up again at the bars at the bottom of the rapids. You are given a coloured piece of string to put around your arm when you do the tube ride. I saw people with both arms covered in those string bands. I asked one guy with glazed eyes how long he'd been riding the tubes. 'Nine months', he told me...there are a lot of young, relatively well-off Britons living in a sort of drugged-out stasis in places like Vang Vieng... SH: Do they feel a sense of freedom in these places? Are they released from the constraints of the society back home?

Carey: No. The libertinism on the surface disguises a radical surrender of will, of control. In a country like Laos you can do whatever you like whenever you like, if you are a Westerner with cash. You can get someone killed for a hundred dollars. You can blow up a cow with high explosives for a few dollars. Seriously. You can buy all sorts of drugs...but because anything is possible, what ultimately happens is that nothing becomes desirable. The Western decadent lapses into fatalism. Why not just ride a tube down a river for the rest of your life?

SH: It sounds like the adepts of decadence are acquiring a weird version of the traditional 'wisdom' of the East that pilgrims from the West - the Beatles, for instance, or Herman Hesse - have traditionally sought. What you call 'fatalism' might be what someone like George Harrison or Timothy Leary would call 'tranquility'...Carey: It's a desire to obliterate the self, and possibly it has more to do with Western problems - with the alienation involved with many aspects of life in modern capitalist society - than with the tenets of Eastern philosophy...

SH: You haven't talked about the actual inhabitants of countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam...

Carey: That's because the people and places of those countries are obscured by, or perhaps hidden from, the tourist industry. They become, at best, a picturesque background. I went to a bar in that nightmarish riverside town in Laos. There was a Lao DJ, there were locals partying with Britons, beer was fifty cents a bottle. I got into the mood. I got drunk. I was - I'm sorry to admit this - dancing wildly. (At least I never took my shirt off and did a limbo dance while people poured alcohol over me, like some of the podgier Poms did...) I had a good time, but I came back the next night, and - guess what - the same scene was unfolding. Exactly the same scene. The Lao DJ, whose enthusiasm had seemed so spontaneous, was playing the same tracks, shouting the same slogans, making the same dance moves. The same podgy guys were limboing. The Lao waitresses had the same expressions on their faces...

SH: It sounds like Nietzsche's eternal recurrence...

Carey: In Vietnam I broke away from the tourist trail. I got hold of a scooter and rode into the northern hills. I was told that there were bandits on the roads, and that I should stay in the resort areas, but I didn't have any trouble. I entered the territory of the Hmong people - they are a fascinating group, a little like the Kurds of Indochina, in the sense that their mountain homeland straddles the borders of several states. Their society is quite traditional and patriarchal. The extended family is extremely important. They have avoided being incorporated into mainstream Vietnamese culture. They forged an alliance with the US during the war, which meant that they have been persecuted by the post-war government, and many of them have gone into exile in North America. Remittances from these exiles gives them an economic base which many other Vietnamese communities do not possess. You see new houses and SUVs on potholed roads in what seems like the middle of nowhere. But the Vietnamese government and the tourist industry do not want outsiders to meet Hmong, and experience their culture.

SH: What about New Zealand? Don't tourists ride tubes down our rivers?

Carey: It would be too cold! But you must understand that we Britons divide the world up into different destinations, which offer differ 'attractions' that form differing backdrops to our predictable disportments. To many of us, the world is like a collection of differently themed bars. New Zealand offers a different 'theme' to Indochina, and therefore attracts a different type of tourist.

SH: Not the tube rider, but the bungee jumper?

Carey: Not so much your shabby Anglo-Laotian junkie, with his opiates and his tube, as an adrenalin junkie. A lot of the tourists I met were attracted by 'gee whizz' activities, like bungee jumping and skiing and white water rafting. There were not the same concentrations of dropouts and druggies that I encountered in places like Laos. A lot of the tourists down here seemed like clean-cut, upwardly mobile kids trying to squeeze as much of an adrenalin rush as they could out of their annual holiday.

SH: While you were travelling about New Zealand a couple of news stories involving misbehaviour by tourists broke. A young German created an outcry by facebooking photos of herself clowning around on the wrong side of a barrier erected to protect ancient Maori rock paintings in Otakou. When critics pointed out that she'd both disrespected and endangered the fragile taoka with her antics, she explained that she'd seen the protective barrier as a 'challenge' which she had to surmount -

Carey: typical 'adventure tourist'!

SH: A group of Norwegian tourists got in trouble after posting footage of themselves shooting protected birds like the native wood pigeon in another part of the South Island. There's been some gnashing of teeth over these latest incidences of bad behaviour by tourists, but it seems to me that we are simply reaping what our tourism industry has sown. We promote ourselves as a giant amusement park, a place for the rest of the world to leap about and shout and generally let off steam, and, surprise surprise -

Carey: you attract idiots!

SH: Well, we don't make any effort to attract what might be called the 'cultural tourist', and I find this frustrating, because both Maori and Pakeha culture and history can be intellectually and aesthetically interesting. I've shown visitors to this country old pa and battle sites, and hybrid Maori-Pakeha buildings like the astonishing Ngata memorial church at Tikitiki or the temple at Ratana, and introduced them to painters like McCahon -

Carey: McCahon is someone who impressed me when I saw his work in Auckland.

SH: There are certain parts of the country where Maori culture is shown to tourists, but the culture seems, to me at least, to be presented as something quaint from the distant past, not as something living and relevant. And, even worse, it is often only the martial aspects of Maori culture that are shown off - the haka and taiaha and the patu -

Carey: Warriors in grass skirts...

SH: Yes. What about Maori carvers, composers, theologians, painters -

Carey: I travelled most of the length of both islands, and I found myself being treated as something of an oddball by tourist operators and other tourists, because I was interested in New Zealand culture and history. In Matamata I stopped at an information centre which was obviously set up largely to cater to fans of Lord of the Rings. I didn't want to visit the nearby remains of Hobbiton, though - I wanted to find some local sites associated with Maori history. The staff at the information centre were unable to give me any tips. Isn't this weird? Tolkien's fantasy, which was constructed thousands of miles away, is acknowledged, but not the real history of New Zealand. But the Waikato is the most transformed, the Anglicised part of New Zealand, in my experience. It feels conquered. England has been imported in bulk - and not the England I like, the rough heaths and downs and mining towns of the north where I grew up, but the twee faux-rural commuter villages of the south, with their picket fences and well-mown lawns...

SH: It's sad, because Matamata and its environs have a fascinating history. Matamata began life as an island pa in a huge forested swamp. It was close to the home of Wiremu Tamihana, the principal creator of the King movement. He consructed a utopian community down the road from the present-day township, and he marshalled his followers during the Waikato war in a pa not far to the west. But that history might be too messy for the folks at the information centre...

Carey: I learned something of the King movement in Waharoa, a little town up the road from Matamata beside a railway junction and a disused dairy factory. I met a group of Maori living communally on tribal land there, and one of them was a senior operative in the movement - he apparently played a key role in selecting the latest King. We talked over a few beers. But I had to wander off on my own to find Waharoa - no one would have recommended it to me...

I don't want to write off the whole of the tourist trail here. There are some remarkable sights. The South Island is extraordinary - the scale of the landscape is enough to impress anyone used to Cumbria's hills as exemplars of wild beauty. But it's strangely hard, given the quality of roads and communications here, to escape the tourist trail. Backpackers' hostels, information centres, even maps - they all direct you to the next 'sight'. In the evenings you find everyone in the hostel sitting around drinking and talking about which sights they have and haven't seen. Mt Cook, Fox Glacier, those pancake rocks...they tick them off. It's like a game...

SH: What advice would you give to the New Zealand tourist industry?

Carey: I don't think it's listening! I was excited by some of the places the tourist trail bypasses - places where there is no hostel and where the buses don't stop. Te Kuiti, Havelock, Blackball. I think that the scenic as well as historic value of the nineteenth and early twentieth century ruins you find in places like Blackball and the area around Greymouth is under-appreciated by New Zealanders. In Yorkshire you can visit old mine and factory sites, but these are usually in built-up areas. In a place like Blackball, where you find the ruins of industry and mines being overpowered by resurgent bush, and shadowed by wild mountains, the effect is extraordinary. It feels like two worlds are colliding. In Blackball I was given an impromptu tour by a local who taught me about the history of the mines and the history of industrial conflict in the area, and I was treated to a ghost story involving the mine manager's house by another local. The entire town had an almost ghostly feel - there was even low cloud crawling in over the mountains - but at the same time there was a feeling that it was more than simply a museum piece. I think that the story of the struggle with nature and with exploitative mining companies in that place could tell New Zealanders a lot today, when they are engaged in a debate about mining that seems, well, rhetorical and ahistorical, and when there is so much kneejerk anti-industrial thinking about on the left. And I think Blackball could attract the British tourists - it has a good pub, after all!