Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Studying the Pacific - and the whole world?

I spent the middle of 2005 in Britain, researching my doctoral thesis on EP Thompson by asking elderly men and women in provincial towns like Worcester and Hull about their memories of the great man. Sometimes my interlocutors grew tired of answering my pedantic questions, and directed a query of their own at me. They wanted to know why I had crossed the world to study the life and work of a British historian and political activist, instead of finding a PhD subject closer to home. I could offer no convincing answer to this question.

I had considered choosing some New Zealand intellectual as the subject for my thesis. Keith Sinclair, who shared Thompson's love of scholarship, poetry, and the rough and tumble of political life, had seemed like a lively and complex target. But I sensed that there was a chasm between what we might call the intrinsic and extrinsic significance of Sinclair's oeuvre. Sinclair's books are compulsory reading for anyone with a passion for New Zealand history and culture. He was one of the first academics to study carefully the origins of the Pakeha-Maori wars of the nineteenth century, and he also wrote an important account of the creation and maintenance of New Zealand national identity. But few scholars who are not directly engaged in the study of New Zealand read Sinclair. His investigations of our past are not often seen as relevant to the histories of other nations.

By contrast, EP Thompson's lapidarian studies of various episodes in English history, like the rise of Methodism in the nineteenth century and the depredations of poachers in Windsor forest a century earlier, have long had massive international audiences. When Thompson toured India in the mid-'70s, giving lectures on the apparently antiquarian subject of class conflict in the eighteenth century English countryside, he was treated like a pop star. By the beginning of the 1980s Thompson had become the world's most-cited living historian, despite the narrow geographic focus of books like The Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common.
Thompson's popularity owes something to his genius, but it is also a reflection of the way that many scholars, in the southern as well as the northern hemisphere, view English history. England was the first industrial society, as well as the heartland of an empire which covered a quarter of the earth by the beginning of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, then, England has often been viewed as the prototypical modern nation, and scholars have been keen to discover parallels between English history and stages in the development of their own countries. Thompson himself was well aware of the way in which his work could be read. In his preface to The Making of the English Working Class he suggested that, because 'the greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialisation' his book might seem directly relevant in 'Asia or Africa'. Thompson told stories which had extrinsic as well as intrinsic significance. He could write about England and the world at one and the same time.

The Pacific has often been regarded as a peripheral part of the world. Most of the region's central and eastern islands remained unpopulated until several thousand years ago, and some of them, like New Zealand, have human histories not much longer than a thousand years. When Europeans reached the Pacific in force a couple of hundred years ago, they saw it as a place without history. For missionaries like Augustus Selwyn and artists like Gauguin, Pacific Islanders were people who lived in a perpetual present, innocent of the chronologies and innovations which were part of human life in more northerly latitudes. Some Europeans, like the syphilitic Gauguin, saw Islanders as noble savages pursuing lives of guiltless hedonism in southern Edens; others, like the appalling Selwyn, talked darkly of heathenism and cannibalism, and presented the Pacific as a place of dangerous ignorance rather than blessed innocence. Whether they were seen as noble or ignoble savages, though, the people of the Pacific were contrasted with their counterparts in the northern hemisphere. The Pacific was the antithesis of Europe.

Even today many inhabitants of the north find the nineteenth century view of the Pacific compelling. Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania, which accuses Pacific peoples like the Samoans and Tongans of a willful, comical ignorance about the outside world, is the most popular contemporary study of our region.
Since the late nineteenth century most New Zealanders have been white, but this country has nevertheless often been viewed through nineteenth century cliches about the Pacific. In the early 1930s and '40s, 'literary nationalists' like Charles Brasch, Monte Holcroft, and the young Allen Curnow bemoaned their homeland's supposed lack of anything resembling a history. This 'far-pitched perilous place' was the antithesis of ancient, sophisticated Europe. In recent decades a set of images summed up in the phrase 'New Zealand Gothic' has infected film, television and media portrayals of rural regions of our nation. Gothic New Zealand is a place of dark, continually raining skies, brooding rot-green hills, and homicidally paranoiac farmers born of incestuous unions. In the northern hemisphere imagination, the Gothic Kiwi is the white equivalent of the Fijian cannibal or the Tahitian nymphomaniac.

Serious scholars of the Pacific have long since shucked off cliched representations of the region. In the early decades of the twentieth century, scholars like Bronislaw Malinowski, Raymond Firth and Te Rangi Hiroa revealed the social complexity and intellectual vitality which even small Pacific societies like Tikopia, Mangaia and the Trobriands possess. Since World War Two historians, anthropologists, sociologists, ethnomusicologists and art historians have produced a vast and sophisticated literature on the Pacific.

Yet the Pacific, with its small nations and isolation from centres of power, has remained an economically and politically marginal part of the globe. The obscurity of the Pacific has allowed the perpetuation of old stereotypes in the popular imagination of the north, and has also dissuaded many northern scholars from studying and thinking about the region. Where EP Thompson benefited from the centrality of his society to world history, Pacific scholars suffer from the marginality of the homelands they study.
I steered away from studying Keith Sinclair partly because I feared that nobody outside my part of the world would be very interested in his work. I didn't consider studying other Pacific intellectuals for the same sort of reason. My thesis on Thompson was eventually published by Manchester University Press. I can't imagine that a study of an antipodean intellectual like Keith Sinclair would have been anywhere near as easy to place with a northern hemisphere publisher.

Shortly after I'd finished my PhD I discovered the work of the Hawa'iian-born anthropologist Patrick Vinton Kirch. As soon as I'd read the introduction to Kirch's magisterial 1986 book The Evolution of the Polynesian Chiefdoms, I realised that he had found a way to overcome the marginalisation of Pacific history. Kirch acknowledges that the Pacific is a relatively isolated region which has played only a small role in world affairs, but argues that these facts make the region more rather than less worthy of study. Kirch believes that we can treat the Pacific as a sort of laboratory, where conflicting theories about the pattern and meaning of human history can be tested.

Kirch's 1995 book The Wet and the Dry finds him at work in his laboratory. Deciding to test Karl Wittfogel's 'hydraulic hypothesis', which holds that societies dependent on irrigation tend to be hierarchical and statist, Kirch considers the West Polynesian island of Futuna, which was traditionally divided into an extensively irrigated 'wet' region called Sigave and a 'dry' area called Alo, where irrigation is much more difficult. Kirch notes that, contrary to what Wittfogel's theory might lead us to believe, Alo has traditionally been a much more hierarchical, centralised, and martial society than Sigave. Kirch turns to other Polynesian societies like Hawa'ii, and argues that they also contradict the 'hydraulic hypothesis'.
Wittfogel's ideas, which derive partly from Marx's very problematic notion of an 'Asiatic mode of production', had a considerable influence on the study of Eastern societies in the twentieth century. Testing Wittfogel in the laboratory of the Pacific, though, Kirch finds him wanting. I'd like to think that The Wet and the Dry has contributed to the decline of Wittofgel's reputation in the twenty-first century.

Patrick Vinton Kirch's research interests are very different from mine. He is an authority on the pre-European history of the Pacific, whereas I have tended to study the ideas and culture of modern palangi societies like Britain and settler New Zealand. But it seems to me that Kirch's notion of the Pacific as a laboratory might be adapted and used by scholars of modernity.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both indigenous and palangi inhabitants of the Pacific imported not only technologies and consumer goods but ideas from wealthy, populous nations of the northern hemisphere. In the Pacific, modernist ideas from the northern hemisphere were transmogrified, as they were reinterpreted to meet local conditions and augmented and amended with locally produced concepts. Because the Pacific has been relatively isolated from other regions, even in the modern era, imported ideas have sometimes developed in peculiar ways here.

By studying the careers of some important modern ideologies in the laboratory of the Pacific, we can view familiar concepts and arguments from new and strange angles. That, at least, is the idea behind a a research project I've been trying to plan this week. I want to pursue the project next year, when I'll be spending some quality time in Tonga.

THINKING UPSIDE DOWN: EXAMINING MODERNITY AND IDEOLOGY IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC

Like Europe, only different: Tupou I and the making of modern Tonga

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a chief named Taufa'ahau waged a long series of military and political campaigns to unite his country and make himself Tupou I, the first king of modern Tonga. With the help of anti-imperialist Britons and Americans, Tupou I proclaimed the emancipation of Tonga's peasants, turned his country's chiefs into civil servants, established a parliament, and created an unusual economic system that prevented the alienation of Tongan land.

Tupou I's reforms were inspired partly by the bourgeois revolutions which transformed Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and they helped Tonga maintain its independence from a host of would-be colonisers. Scholars disagree, though, about the extent and meaning of Tupou's achievements. Was he a democrat or a tyrant? What does his rule of Tonga tell us about the content of the bourgeois democratic ideas he imported from Europe?

Ruthlessly improving the natives: hypermodernist ideology and New Zealand rule in Samoa

Many thinkers in early twentieth century Pakeha New Zealand society venerated industry and science. Groups on the left as well as the right of the political spectrum embraced utopian visions of scientifically-guided economic and social progress. HG Wells' scientific utopias were enormously popular, and were imitated by homegrown writers like John Macmillan Brown. The new 'science' of eugenics excited many Kiwis.

Hypermodernist ideology was never a strong influence on a New Zealand government, but for more than a decade it guided Kiwi administrators in the colony of Samoa, which had been taken from Germany during World War One. Determined to turn Samoa into a modern capitalist country and consign traditional Polynesian culture to museums, New Zealand administrators tried to break up collectively owned blocks of land and replace the ancient villages of 'Upolu and Sava'ii with new, 'rational' settlements laid out in grid-like patterns. New Zealand's attempt to transform Samoa led to opposition, bloodshed, and failure. What does this ill-fated experiment tell us about the hypermodernist thinking which was so pervasive in the West during the first decades of the twentieth century?

Mixed blood and foreign soil: the strange story of Samoa's Nazis

The Samoan Nazi Party was formed in 1934 by a German settler with a Tongan wife, and its members and supporters included many afakasi. The party, which called for Germany to reclaim its Samoan colony from an unpopular New Zealand administration, hung portraits of Adolf Hitler on the walls of its headquarters on Apia's waterfront, and established a paramilitary wing which trained secretly in the countryside.

The Samoan Nazis were recognised by Hitler's regime, and even sent two representatives to a world congress of fascists held in Hamburg in 1937, but their unusual understanding of racial purity ensured that they were frequently engaged in fraught discussions with their German allies, who refused to consider Polynesians members of the Aryan race. After the outbreak of World War Two many members of the Samoan Nazi Party were interned on Wellington's Somes Island, and the organisation never reestablished itself. Samoa's Nazis offer us some fascinating insights into the contradictions and limitations of fascist ideology.

A 'communist state' in rural Fiji: the Bula Tale movement 

At the beginning of the 1960s four villages in the western backblocks of Viti Levu announced their intention of seceding from Fiji. Led by Apimeleki Ramatau Mataki, a former junior civil servant, the Bula Tale movement rejected the authority of both the British colonial administration in Suva and traditional Fijian culture. Members of the movement refused to recognise colonial laws, eschewed kava drinking and other traditional cultural practices, collectivised many of their possessions, and abolished money. Ramatau said that he wanted to create a 'communist state' in the villages where he had influence, and his movement was sometimes known as the Bula Tale Communist Party.

At its high point in 1961, the Bula Tale movement had one thousand members and support in many parts of Fiji, and was being denounced by both colonial administrators and high chiefs. What place should the Bula Tale movement have in the history of the diffusion of radical left-wing ideas? What does the movement tell us about the relationship between communist ideology and Fijian tradition?

Blood in the kava bowl: Epeli Hau'ofa's confrontation with Marxism

In the years before Sitiveni Rabuka's coups in 1987 the Suva campus of the University of the South Pacific was an exciting place, where scholars from around the world taught and argued. One of university's stars was Epeli Hau'ofa, a short story writer, novelist, poet, and anthropologist who had grown up in Papua New Guinea, where his Tongan parents had been missionaries. Hau'ofa is best-known today for his 1990s essays 'Our Sea of Islands' and 'The Ocean in Us', which changed the direction of Pacific studies by insisting that peoples like the Tongans and Fijians should be considered not as isolated denizens of small societies but as the frequently mobile citizens of a single vast region.
During the late 1970s and '80s Hau'ofa often wrestled with the Marxist ideas which a series of palangi academics promoted at the University of the South Pacific. Like a number of other important Pacific thinkers, Hau'ofa was both attracted and repulsed by the materialism and universalism of the Marxism he encountered in Suva. In his great poem 'Blood in the Kava Bowl' Hau'ofa dramatised a debate with Michael Howard, an American scholar who taught at Suva until 1987 and in 1991 published a Marxist history of Fiji. What can we learn from Hau'ofa's confrontation with Marxist ideas?

To Import the Enlightenment: Futa Helu, 'Atenisi, and Tonga's pro-democracy movement

In the early 1960s Futa Helu, a young Tongan who had studied at Sydney University with the philosopher and satirist John Anderson, founded a private school in a swamp near the western edge of Nuku'alofa, and called it 'Atenisi, the Tongan word for Athens. Helu's school would become a bridge over which much of the Western tradition in philosophy, literature, and music would reach Tonga. Like his hero Socrates, Helu was unafraid to speak truth to power, and in the 1980s and '90s his school became the headquarters of Tonga's pro-democracy movement. The historian Ian Campbell has argued that, by training thousands of young Tongans in critical thinking, 'Atenisi had a 'devastating' effect on notions of the divine right of kings and the union of church and state promoted by the twentieth century Tongan elite.

Up until his death in 2010 Helu insisted on the universality of reason and science, and condemned both moderate and radical forms of cultural relativism. He repeatedly argued that Tongan culture lacked a critical spirit, and needed an infusion of Greek and Enlightenment ideas. Although Helu was passionate about Tongan poetry and dance as well as Greek philosophy and Italian opera, he has been accused of Eurocentrism by some of his fellow Tongan intellectuals. What can we learn from Futa Helu's attempt to import the Enlightenment into Tonga?

Giving time an end: Tonga's Tokaikolo Fellowship and the 'coup' of 1990

In 1978 a group of ministers split from Tonga's dominant Free Wesleyan Church and established their country's first pentecostal sect. The Tokaikolo Fellowship preaches the importance of subjective religious experience, and at its gatherings worshippers often talk in tongues, move wildly, and utter prophecy. In the 1980s the Fellowship aligned itself with Tonga's nascent pro-democracy movement, and against the country's political and religious establishment.

In April 1990, the Fellowship baffled its liberal friends by hosting two pentecostal preachers from New Zealand who warned that Satanists and communists were preparing to stage a military coup in Tonga. Acting on the advice of the Kiwis, the Fellowship turned its churches on the island of Tongatapu into armed compounds and prepared to wage a campaign of resistance against the coming coup. The Fellowship's actions caused general panic, and forced the Tongan government to issue a statement rubbishing claims about a coup. Arguably, the Tokaikolo Fellowship's strange behaviour in 1990 tells us a great deal about the contradictions between traditional Tongan and modern Western notions of time and history.

All that should help keep me out of mischief next year...

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Choosing new homelands

Last night Skyler and I watched The Tamarind Seed, a slightly cheesy seventies spy thriller starring a smouldering (that, at least, was Skyler's adjective) Omar Sharif. At the end of the film Sharif's character, who was a Russian spy defecting to the West, had to choose a country to inhabit for the rest of his days. He'd be provided for by his new hosts, but he wouldn't be able to leave his adopted homeland, or to see old friends and family.

Omar's situation made us wonder: if we had to live in a single country for the rest of our lives, where would it be? Our obvious first choice would be New Zealand, because of friends and family and memories here, but what if this country were ruled out, and we had to find a new homeland?

In The Tamarind Seed, Omar Sharif's character turned down the offer of Britain as a permanent abode, and instead picked Canada. I think this was a sound choice: Canada is a bit more spacious than old Blighty, which could quickly get claustrophobic, especially for a Russian used to the endless steppe.

I love Tonga, and am excited about living there for most of next year, but I think I would get cabin fever if I were to spend every day of the the rest of my life in a country the size of Lake Taupo with a population of one hundred thousand.
After a good deal of agonising, I picked Brazil as the place I'd make into a new permanent homeland. Learning Portugese would be tricky, but Brazil is huge, with an exciting mix of cultures, a tangled history, a weird and wonderful literary tradition about which I know far too little, and a broad, sophisticated political left. I think we could live in Brazil and treat the country as a microcosm of the wider world.

Skyler was undecided, but thought we might have a good time in Sweden, which she considers the most civilised country in the world. I love Swedish poetry, and Stockholm sounds like an improved version of Auckland, with its harbour setting, picturesque wooden architecture, and efficient public transport system, but I couldn't tolerate the cold.

Ted Jenner is a man who adopted a new homeland decades before he ever set foot outside New Zealand. When I interviewed him several years ago, in the lead-up to the publication of a major selection of his writings, the classicist and poet explained that he'd developed a fascination with Greece while growing up in  Dunedin back in the fifties. Inspired by Homer and Aristophanes, the young Jenner would lie awake at night listening to waves wreck themselves on the dunes of St Kilda, and imagine that they belonged to the wine-dark Mediterranean of the Odyssey, rather than the cold green Southern Ocean.
Ted's early enthusiasms were by no means unusual: several generations of Kiwi writers and artists grew up obsessed with classical antiquity, until Greek and Latin were pulled from school syllabuses and Kerouac's America rather than Homer's Greece became the spiritual homeland of young Bohemians. Greek heroes and Gods swagger through the poems of James K Baxter, Charles Brasch and Denis Glover like handsome gangsters.

Ted Jenner has published versions of many ancient Greek poems over the years, and he's currently travelling through his adopted homeland researching a new set of translations. Modern Greece has become sadly dependent on its tourist industry, but over the past six months the sunbathers and snorkellers have been augmented by journalists and aid workers, as the country's economy has gone into freefall and its people have taken to the streets. Recent parliamentary elections saw an explosion in support for the radical left-wing Syriza coalition and, more worryingly, for the Golden Dawn, a collection of shaven-headed, beer-bellied, seig heiling thugs who absurdly claim to represent the spirit of ancient Greece.
A confirmed social democrat, Ted Jenner is horrified by the rise of the Golden Dawn and sympathetic to the anti-austerity protesters on the streets of Greece. He has not made his latest visit to the country, though, to engage in politics. Even as Greece burns, he is focused on scholarship. He reminds me a little of the narrator of Jorge Luis Borges' famous short story 'Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' who, seeing the world in tumult around him, busies himself with a translation of an obscure text by the seventeenth century writer and antiquarian Thomas Browne. If anyone questioned his priorities, Ted might plausibly argue that his translations help keep the spirit of ancient Greece alive, at a time when that spirit is being misrepresented by the sinister Golden Dawn, and forgotten by generations who have grown up, in New Zealand and elsewhere, with little education in the classics.
Ted has spent the last week or so in Thebes, a small market town north of Athens. Thebes may be an insignificant place today, but in Greek literature it is the setting for the sorrows of King Oedipus and the revels of Dionysus. Here's a message Ted sent me on the weekend:

Scott,

will have to go without food today - am caught up in a general strike in Thebes of all places! Oh, and to add to my day, the museum is closed for months until restorations and extensions are completed. This will give you a little taste of what hardships a traveler in Greece occasionally encounters but I must say it has been very pleasant so far. The weather has been so kind to me, never below 25 degrees at midday.

Thebes is a natural citadel, a broad easily defended acropolis and one can trace the entry points the chariots must have made into what became known as the Kadmeia, i.e. the ancient citadel. Where the entry into the city spirals - and there are several of these - you can guess that the modern road follows the twists and turns of the ancient road up to one of the seven gates that defended Thebes. 

The Thebans still like to be known as Boiotians - after all these are the people that destroyed the Spartan army almost for good at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. 

You can blame the Macedonians for the fact that there isn't much to see in the modern city that is ancient  - Phillip II levelled Thebes after the Battle of Chaeronea leaving only Pindar's house standing. The main road in today's Kadmeia is called the Odos Pindarou. Other streets celebrate the names of  famous figures from Theban myth, history and legend, e.g. the Odos Oidipodos, the Odos Antigones etc. 

You will enjoy the mod. Greek for 'private property': KHOROS IDIOTIKOS!!

Don't see so many Greek men wielding their worry beads this time round - there's an accursed modern invention that is replacing the beads: the cellphone!!

Yia Sas,
Ted

I think that Greece is still Ted's adopted homeland. What country would you pick as a permanent abode, if you were forced to make the choice?

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Friday, October 19, 2012

Back to the future

 Some anonymous philanthropist has posted a long dialogue from 1983 between the left-wing historians EP Thompson and CLR James to Youtube. In between blasts of reggae Thompson and James talk about their scholarly work, the political situation in 1983, and the prospects of the left.

By the early eighties Thompson had become the world's most-cited living historian. His massive The Making of the English Working Class had changed the course of the discipline by inspiring young scholars to think about the past 'from the bottom up', rather than in terms of the cunning of diplomats and statesmen. Despite his success, Thompson had in 1980 given up historical research to campaign against the deployment of both American and Soviet nuclear weapons in Europe. He had soon became one of the best-known spokesmen for the wider peace movement.

While Thompson spent much of the eighties travelling from one meeting hall and protest site to another, making speeches and scribbling press releases, the octogenarian CLR James lived quietly in a shabby flat in Brixton, the south London suburb known for its large black population and riots. James' great works, like his epic history of the Haitian revolution and his politically engaged study of West Indian cricket,  had never achieved the mainstream renown of The Making of the English Class.
What is most remarkable about the dialogue between Thompson and James is the confidence both men have in the immediate future. Both see the eighties as a decade in which the forces of the left have every opportunity to advance. James believes that more and more Third World nations will follow the lead of revolutionary Iran and Sandinista Nicaragua, and break free of the domination of America. He suggests that India, with its huge, politically literate working class, will soon experience revolution, and become an important player in world politics.

Thompson is less sanguine than James about the state of the global left, but he believes that the peace movement which is building in both Western and Eastern Europe may be able to usher in a new era in history, by humbling both the Stalinist dictators of the Soviet Union and the Reagan government and uniting European peoples in some sort of egalitarian confederation.

Both James and Thompson seem to see the Reagan and Thatcher governments, with their aggressive brand of free market capitalism and antipathy to organised labour, as historical aberrations, rather than as harbingers of the future.
Before we mock the optimistic visions of Thompson and James, we should think carefully about the historical context of their chat.

For members of my generation, the eighties bring to mind a set of curiously contradictory images. The decade of our childhood and early teenage years was the era of yuppies, synthesiser-rock bands with extravagantly bad hair, and febrile sharemarkets, but it was also marked by mass unemployment, epic industrial disputes like Britain's miners' strike, and fear of nuclear war.

The eighties began with America and its allies recoiling from military defeat in Indochina and anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World, and wondering how to deal with an economic crisis which had lasted for the whole of the seventies, and had prompted wave after wave of industrial unrest. Respected commentators prophesised the collapse of Western capitalism and the ever-increasing power of the Soviet Union and its allies.
By the end of the eighties the world seemed to have changed completely. America and Britain had enjoyed a decade of right-wing rule, during which Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had subdued insurgent trade unions, handed many formerly state-owned assets to the private sector, and stared down a visibly weakening Soviet leadership. Popular culture had lost much of its seventies insouciance, and reconciled itself to the hegemony of capitalism. The grimy radicalism of the Sex Pistols and The Clash had been replaced by Duran Duran's odes to superyachts and supermodels.

Through the nineties and much of the noughties, the triumph of Thatcher, Reagan and their many imitators seemed like an historical turning point. When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that the exhaustion of the Soviet Union and the popularity of Western capitalism had brought humanity to the 'end of history', and prophesised that America would be the model for all future societies, many formerly radical intellectuals nodded their heads with varying degress of sadness. Organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank set about applying the 'lessons' of the eighties to continents like South America and Africa, forcing government after government to privatise assets, eliminate subsidies, and submit to the erratic logic of the free market.

When Britain's Tories were finally voted out of office in 1997 they were replaced by the 'reformed' Labour Party of Tony Blair, a man who openly admitted his admiration for Thatcher. As Britain and much of the rest of the West enjoyed a period of strong economic growth in the late nineties and early noughties, it seemed that the changes of the eighties had created the basis for a new boom. The decade had become the first page of a new and glorious chapter in the history of Western capitalism.
But the contradictions of the eighties always survived in some of the memories and popular images of the decade. The struggle of Britain's miners, which saw northern towns placed under military occupation and pitched battles on the edge of coal pits, the riots by unemployed youth in Brixton and other poorer suburbs of big cities, and the persistent fear that nuclear-tipped missiles would come flying over the horizon from Eastern Europe were impossible to reconcile with the jejune visions of Fukuyama and his ilk.

In the early years of the eighties, especially, Thatcher and Reagan and the policies they promoted seemed destined for the dustbin of history. As Brixton burned and unemployment rose relentlessly, Thatcher fell far behind the Labour Party in the opinion polls. Labour itself was moving leftwards, as it adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and sent Trotskyists to parliament. It was the Falklands War, and not the success of Thatcherism, which turned the tide and gave the Tories their impressive victory in the general election of 1983. Reagan also struggled for much of his first term, as Americans came home in bodybags from Lebanon and unemployment crept upwards.

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the beginning of what has become known as the Great Recession, the eighties of riots, strikes, and paranoia have made a comeback in popular consciousness. As Britain's dole stretch and riots return to London, newspaper columnists are warning about a return to bad old days. The economic growth of the early twentieth century seems to have owed more to dodgy accounting and debt than to a successful reinvention of capitalism by Thatcherites. Fukyama's sanguinity seems absurd.
The conversation between EP Thompson and CLR James is important because it returns us to a moment when the eighties seemed like they might be a continuation rather than a reversal of the pattern of the sixties and seventies. When they sat together in a television studio in 1983, Thompson and James could reasonably expect to see Thatcher and Reagan's experiments in extreme capitalism defeated, the Western trade union and peace movements strengthened, and more Third World nations shake off the hegemony of America.

And it is worth wondering whether the long run has completely discredited Thompson and James' speculations. Thatcherism may have triumphed in Britian in the late eighties, as the miners were defeated and the north was deindustrialised, but the hegemony of free market capitalism seems increasingly uncertain a quarter century on. America may have thwarted the revolutionaries of the Third World in the eighties and nineties, but it has seen the International Monetary Fund defied by a series of radical South American governments in recent years. The Iranian revolution may have been betrayed by a grotesque theocracy, but in nations like Egypt and Tunisia the Arab Spring now promises a new era. Watching Thompson and James, we can return to a moment which seems both remote and curiously contemporary.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Thursday, October 18, 2012

'Atenisi looks ahead

[The forward march of Paul Janman's Tongan Ark, which tells the story of Futa Helu and the university he founded in the swamps of Nuku'alofa, has continued lately, with screenings before appreciative audiences in Mangere, Christchurch, and Hamilton, and a rave review from Peter Calder in the New Zealand Herald

Paul is taking his film to Auckland's Central Art Gallery and to the Wellington Film Archive later this month, and Briar March, the creator of a remarkable documentary about the tiny and endangered Polynesian atoll of Takuu, is rumoured to be organising a showing in a perilous location on Auckland's wild west coast. Next month Paul will be taking Tongan Ark home, by holding an open air screening of the film in Nuku'alofa. That should be a night to remember. 

Tongan Ark ends in 2010, when Futa Helu's death placed the future of 'Atenisi in jeopardy. It is good to be able to record that 'Atenisi has weathered the crisis of Helu's passing, and is now looking forward to the future with confidence. This press release, which is being distributed to audiences of Tongan Ark, describes 'Atenisi's plans for 2013. Who else feels like a little study and some kava drinking in the winterless north?]


Tonga's unique 'Atenisi Institute looks forward to 2013

Tonga's 'Atenisi Institute is preparing for a busy and productive 2013, as it benefits from a wave of positive publicity.

Founded by the philosopher Futa Helu in 1963, 'Atenisi, whose name is Tongan for Athens, is the only tertiary institution in the Pacific which is independent of both state and religious authority. 'Atenisi has trained some of Tonga's most distinguished intellectuals, and been at the heart of the country's pro-democracy movement.

Because of its unusual, relaxed ambience, its involvement in important political and social struggles, and its emphasis on creating a dialogue between Polynesian and European traditions, 'Atenisi has over the years also attracted many important palangi intellectuals and artists as teachers and supporters.

Thousands of Kiwis have learned about the existence of the 'Atenisi Institute for the first time this year, thanks to Paul Janman's acclaimed documentary film Tongan Ark, which tells the story of Futa Helu and the school he founded. Tongan Ark played to capacity audiences at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and is now in demand at academic conferences and community festivals around the country. In a review published recently in the New Zealand Herald, Peter Calder called Janman's film 'absorbing', and described Futa Helu's ideas as 'thrillingly fresh'.

The Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts has capitalised on the success of Tongan Ark by touring New Zealand and giving shows which blend European and Tongan music and dance.

This year has also seen the publication in New Zealand of a selection of Futa Helu's essays about poetry, and an extended discussion of his life and thought in a special issue of one of New Zealand's leading literary journals.

The new interest in 'Atenisi and Futa Helu reflects their relevance in the twenty-first century. Paul Janman argues that 'Atenisi's interest in blending Polynesian and European thinking and culture "appeals to people looking for a model of healthy biculturalism".

The sociologist and novelist Dr Michael Horowitz, who has taught for years at 'Atenisi, says that the institution contrasts pleasantly with some of the large-scale, business-focused universities in his native America. 'Atenisi is a small university in a poor country, but I feel free here, because I can teach free from commercial imperatives" Horowitz says. "The small classes and dialogues with students around the kava bowl make me feel I'm back in ancient Greece, in the school of Socrates or Plato. 'Atenisi is a cultural as well as intellectual experience."

In 2013 Dr 'Opeti Taliai will take up the post of Dean of 'Atenisi. After getting an undergraduate degree from 'Atenisi, Taliai went on to earn a PhD in anthropology from Massey University and to teach at both Massey. "Futa Helu was my first and greatest teacher" 'Opeti says. "He cracked open the shell of my mind and taught me to think critically. I want to carry on that tradition."

Under the leadership of Dr Taliai, 'Atenisi will be offering courses in the history and sociology of the Pacific, Tongan language, dance, and literature, Greek and European philosophy, and other subjects. "I believe 'Atenisi has an unusual combination of qualities" Dr Taliai says. "We are positioned in the heart of Polynesia, but we are open to the intellectual traditions of Europe. We are passionate about both Polynesian culture and the sort of critical thinking that the ancient Greeks practiced."

Dr Taliai has recruited a number of new teachers, including the sociologist and cultural and political commentator Dr Scott Hamilton. Hamilton did his PhD at the University of Auckland, and his thesis, which considered the work of the English thinker EP Thompson, was issued last year by Manchester University Press. Hamilton will combine his duties at 'Atenisi with research into Tonga's rich intellectual heritage.

"'Atenisi appeals to me in a way that larger, much better-funded universities don't" Hamilton says. "The huge role the institution has played in changing Tongan society is an inspiring example of the effect intellectuals can have in the real world. Tonga is right next door to New Zealand, yet a lot of palangi Kiwi intellectuals haven't been aware of what it has to offer. That should change."


'Atenisi's academic year begins in February, with enrolment and orientation. Lectures begin on February the 25th, and the first semester ends in mid-June. Enrolment for second semester classes is scheduled for the 15th to the 19th of July, and the second semester runs from the 22nd of July until the 28th of November.

For information on enrolling at 'Atenisi contact Sisi'uno Langi-Helu at sisiunohelu@gmail.com

To watch parts of Tongan Ark and see where the film is showing, visit http://www.tonganark.net and facebook

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Five anti-haiku written while riding a bus to Hamilton with Paul Janman

[Paul Janman and I recently made an epic journey by bus to the exotic-city state of Hamilton, where Paul's movie Tongan Ark was being screened and discussed by a very nice bunch of social scientists. I'll write up our adventure tomorrow, if only to make Paul Theroux and Redmond O'Hanlon jealous, but in the meantime here are some dodgy jottings I made on the Citylink chariot. I'm sure they'll attract an even more enthusiastic response than the poetic gems I posted from Hamilton East last year...]

Rangiriri Pa Historic Reserve 

Tawhiao's ears ringing
as loudly as these crickets
Huntly

like an early morning slag-heap
on the counter
of that Freiburg bakery:

this coal looks delicious
Buller's Book of Bombs

slow explosion
of sparrows

hawk
stoops
like a drone
Near Taupiri

Sunlight sidesteps through
the broken door
of the scrubcutter's hut,
leaps an armchair,
lands in a corner,
and pins a runaway rugby jersey
to the floor

Christ Church, Taupiri

That iron cross is also a weather vane.
Once I saw it trembling reverently
in a storm. Lightning spread horizontally.
I imagined angels convulsing
on their black cloud-beds
like depressives being given ECT.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Stalin, Pol Pot, Eric Hobsbawm, and me

A commenter with the nom de plume 'poodag' is unimpressed with my criticisms of Martin Doutre, the Holocaust-denying pseudo-historian who has been an architect of John Ansell's new campaign against the Treaty of Waitangi. In a rambling missive left on an old page of this blog, poodag condemns the critics of the 'valiant Doutre' as 'domesticated/numbered sheep and morons', who are cogs in a venerable conspiracy:

Eisenhowers death camps, Stalins rape and liquidation of Germans, Mao's sixty million murdered brethren, Jewish influence and control over this worlds affairs and globalism since 1900 a.d. Hush! Hush! It is verboten! The auther of "Reading the Maps" is an obvious hateful devil of the same ilk as Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot etc.. Constant division and hate and change and revolution is their agenda, it is the enemy of mankinds agenda... it is in Marx's words International Socialism... constant division and revolution so that national bonding and unity is forever destroyed. Welcome to the conspiered and established global machine that no one can escape.

Any expression of anti-semitism depresses me, but I find something particularly melancholy about the conspiracy theory in which poodag and his ilk so often embed their Jew-hatred. For the poodags of this world, every aspect of political and economic life, from the vacillations of sharemarkets to parliamentary debates to industrial conflicts, is the product of a carefully guarded and impossibly clever scheme, hatched by a few crook-nosed men in a secluded beige room. All of the extraordinary variety of the world, with its two hundred or so nations and innumerable political and religious ideologies, and every curious niche and cranny of history is ultimately the product of this handful of conspirators. Opposition to the 'global machine' which these conspirators oil and polish is, of course, futile. The likes of poodag make an infinitely complex and endlessly malleable world into something homogenous and invulnerable to influence. Their ideology is not only bigoted - it is dull and hopeless.

Poodag's anti-semitism may be relatively rare today, but his inability to appreciate the complexity of the world and its history is not. I've argued before that citizens of the twenty-first century West have difficulty  in relating to the past. We either treat the eras which preceded ours as completely alien, with no lessons to offer us, or else we go to the opposite extreme, and consider the past wholly in terms of our contemporary values and preoccupations.

The recent passing of a great historian has prompted a typical outpouring of historical misunderstanding. Eric Hobsbawm, who died last week at the age of ninety-five, had been the most famous and longest-surviving the young historians who socialised and studied together as members of the Communist Party of Great Britain during the years after World War Two. Where most other members of the Communist Party Historians Group, like Christopher Hill, who revolutionised our understanding of the English revolution, and John Saville, who helped bring oral history to Britain, left the party in 1956 or 1957, after the invasion of Hungary and revelations about the extent of Stalin's crimes, Hobsbawm remained in the organisation as a sort of 'internal exile'. His politics moved to the right over the years, and in the 1980s and early '90s he became a mentor to first Neil Kinnock and then Tony Blair, as they moved the Labour Party away from its working class and social democratic roots.

After making his name with a series of lapidarian studies of nineteenth and early twentieth century English history, including an essay which magisterially disposed of the myth that Methodism prevented an English revolution early in the nineteenth century and a long and contemptuous consideration of the Fabian Society, Hobsbawm began to travel in time and space, producing a book about Peru, a treatise on  the history of banditry, and, eventually, a series of bestselling volumes which traced the history of the entire world from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until the end of the Cold War.
While most major newspapers have awarded Eric Hobsbawm long and respectful obituaries, some right-wing publications and a great number of right-leaning blogs have condemned him in extravagant language. Writing in the Daily Mail, one of Blighty's more febrile tabloids, AN Wilson called Hobsbawm a 'barmy old fool' who 'openly hated Britain' and thought Stalin 'wonderful'.

For blogger John Phelan, Hobsbawm was 'the Marxist version' of notorious Holocaust denier David Irving. Phelan cannot understand why an old commie like Hobsbawm, who was a member of the party during Stalin's rule of the Soviet Union, did not attract the same oppobrium as an ex-Nazi:

It is one of the great mysteries of intellectual life in the last few decades that anyone who confesses to a youthful flirtation with Nazism or fascism is shunned by polite society until a sufficiently long and intense period of penance had passed, while a youthful fondness for communism is presented as one of those harmless things...

Instead of trying to engage with the history of the most tragic years of the twentieth century, Hobsbawm's critics make a series of deductions. They are note that Stalin was a tyrant and a mass murderer, remember that Hitler was also a tyrant and a mass murderer, and then decide that members of a political party which supported Stalin in the 1930s and '40s must have been, for all intents and purposes, no different from members of a Hitlerite organisation.
When we consider the policies and internal cultures of communist and fascist political parties in the '30s and '40s, though, we discover vast differences. Whereas Hitler's Nazi Party and Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists preached a racist, misogynist and ultra-imperialist doctrine, romanticised war, and made themselves the enemies of modern art and the intelligentsia, their communist counterparts proclaimed a message of anti-imperialism, racial and sexual equality, and peace, and successfully courted many of their era's leading artists and intellectuals. It was the Communist Party of Great Britain and its sister organisations around the world which called for the decolonisation of Asia and Africa, rallied in defence of the Spanish Republic, and continually publicised the demands of both employed and unemployed workers. Bigotry was a virtual prerequisite for membership of a fascist party; humanitarianism and idealism, by contrast, motivated many rank and file communists in the '30s and '40s.
Unfortunately, organisations like the Communist Party of Great Britain combined their calls for peace, full employment, and democracy in Spain with celebrations of Stalin and of the Soviet Union. In the CPGB's Daily Worker, Stalin was regularly hailed as a theoretical genius and a great humanitarian, and the Soviet Union was presented as an earthly paradise.

Hobsbawm's critics might reasonably argue that the veneration of Stalin by western communist parties was just as ignoble as the adulation that fascists gave to Hitler. But whereas Hitler's behaviour was a fulfilment of fascist doctrine, Stalin's crimes were a betrayal of the principles that he and his followers proclaimed. Stalin denounced imperialism whilst deporting whole nations, like the Crimean Tartars, to the obscurity of the Siberian taiga. He paid tribute to the workers of the world while assembling armies of slaves to dam and drain the Volga and a score of other rivers. He spoke of defending Spanish democracy whilst using Soviet troops to crush the democratic workers' and peasants' councils of Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia. He praised poetry while sending poets to their deaths.

The split between the rhetoric and reality of Stalinism reflected the history and sociology of the Soviet Union. The Russian revolution of 1917 was made by workers and peasants organised into grassroots democractic councils, but in the 1920s a caste of the bureaucrats gradually took control of the society the revolution had made.  These usurpers claimed to represent workers and rank and file communists whilst serving their own ends. Their revolutionary rhetoric contrasted with their cynical stewardship of the Soviet state. As the usurper-in-chief, Stalin took hypocrisy to an extreme. He praised and buried the revolution at the same time.

Hobsbawm became a teenage communist in Berlin, while watching Hitler march towards political power in the early 1930s. In 1933 he fled to Britain, where he soon joined the local communist party. For Hobsbawm and thousands of other young men and women, the party was the only force in British life prepared to oppose the insurgent fascism and decadent capitalism of the '30s.

If we understand the differences in the policies and culture of communist and fascist parties of the 1930s and '40s, and if we consider Eric Hobsbawm's biography, then we can see his membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain as something other than an expression of 'hatred for Britain' or love of Stalin's purges and gulags. To appreciate the differences between a rank and file Nazi and a rank and a rank and file communist in Hobsbawm's era, though, we have to make an effort of historical imagination. We have to project ourselves into the world of the '30s, with all contradictions, complexities, and confusions, rather than make pat judgements from our perch in the twenty-first century.

[Posted by Scott/Maps]

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Down and out in Remuera

With its multi-million dollar homes and streets full of spotless, late model SUVs, Remuera is no stronghold of the left. It's perhaps unsurprising that John Ansell, a former ad man for both the National and Act parties, felt that the Auckland suburb would be a good place to discuss his ideas about the Treaty of Waitangi and the state of Kiwi politics.

Ansell had planned to use a public meeting at the Remmers Rotary Club on Monday night to test support for a political party that would fight the next general election on a platform of opposition to 'Maori racism'. Ansell thinks that abominations like the Waitangi Tribunal, Maori seats, and the Maori Language Act are making New Zealand an 'apartheid state', and he believes, on the basis of a series of rather mysterious opinion polls, that four-fifths of Kiwis, including many Maori, agree with him.

But the distinguished members of the Remuera Rotary Club don't appear to belong to John Ansell's silent majority. After initially agreeing to host Monday night's meeting, the Rotarians have gotten cold feet, and have put out a statement distancing themselves from Ansell's politics. Ansell is now casting about rather desperately for an alternative venue for his political launch. I'm guessing that he won't be sounding out the Otara Community Centre.

Ansell's inability to find a reliable host in Auckland's most conservative suburb symbolises the decline of his political fortunes. During the 2005 general election campaign he designed a series of high-profile billboards which played on Pakeha fears about Maori nationalist politics, and helped Don Brash lead the National Party to within a whisker of victory. When Brash seized the leadership of the Act Party a few months before last year's election Ansell was at his side, making excited predictions about a forty percent rise in Act's vote and designing a new series of anti-Maori ads. But Brash's campaign was a disaster, as Ansell's broadsides against 'Maorification' provoked scorn and derision even inside Act.

Dismissing Act as a band of 'white cowards', Ansell formed an outfit of his own called the Coastal Coalition to protest against alleged Maori plans to seize New Zealand's beaches. Despite some hard-hitting billboards funded by Louis Crimp, the dendrophilic Invercargill businessman unhappy at Act's insufficiently firm line on Maori 'savages', the Coastal Coalition failed to collect anywhere near enough signatures to force a referendum on its pet topic.

Ansell's new campaign, which he has given the imaginative name Treatygate, has once again been funded generously by Louis Crimp, but appears to be attracting even less support than the Coastal Coalition's quixotic crusade. Even long-time critics of the Treaty of Waitangi like the libertarian blogger and politician Peter Cresswell have distanced themselves from Ansell, criticising his wild generalisations about Maori and his predilection for conspiracy theory. If Ansell does manage to scrape together enough supporters to form a new political party, it is likely to compete with Social Crediters and pot smokers for the wooden spoon at the 2014 general election.

Although some of Ansell's problems come from the inherent silliness of the arguments he retails - a silliness which I tried to outline in this post - he seems also to have become trapped in a sort of vicious circle. As he has gone from campaign to campaign, losing followers and finding it harder and harder to win sympathetic coverage from the media, Ansell has come to rely more on more on a few activists on the far edge of the far right of the political spectrum. These supporters may be energetic and loyal, but they tend to damage Ansell's already badly tarnished brand. Instead of recognising this damage, though, Ansell appears to have become steadily more radicalised, as he has taken on board some of the peculiar ideas of his hardcore followers. The more radicalised Ansell becomes, though, the less palatable he is to the Kiwis whose support he wants to attract.

Martin Doutre exemplifies the problems that Ansell's remaining supporters bring him. For two decades now, Doutre has been advancing the theory that New Zealand was settled thousands of years ago by an advanced  civilisation of peaceful whites. His claims to have discovered ancient cities and Stonehenge-like monuments in remote Northland forests have made him something of a figure of fun amongst trained scholars of this country's past. Doutre's Holocaust denial, admiration for the neo-Nazi pseudo-historian David Irving, and belief that 9/11 was an inside job have not helped his credibility.
Doutre may be a joke to most of us, but he has evidently become a hero to John Ansell. Indeed, Ansell has suggested that one of the aims of the Treatygate campaign is to win popular acceptance for his friend's strange ideas:

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of Martin’s writing. I’ve prod­ded and poked at him on a few occa­sions when some explan­a­tion didn’t quite gel. And yet he’s always come up trumps. I’ve never failed to be impressed by the depth and breadth and robust­ness of his knowledge. I’m very happy to stand with Mar­tin, just as I was once proud to stand with Roger Douglas. By the time this cam­paign is over, I intend the name of Mar­tin Doutre to be well-known to his coun­try­men, and for all the right reasons.

Another inspiration for Ansell's new campaign is Colin Rawle, the head of the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Anthrosophical Society and a man with some strong views about religion, race, and Rudolf Steiner. In a series of semi-coherent missives to various Kiwi media outlets over recent years, Rawle has attempted to convert the rest of us to his belief that an unholy alliance of Marxists, Muslims, lesbian feminists, and Maoris is trying to destroy New Zealand, and Western civilisation in general.

John Ansell recently reproduced a particularly paranoid Rawle text on his blog under the title The Oblivion Constitution. For Rawle, the constitution that Bolivia adopted in 2009 is a highly dangerous document, because it gives a certain degree of political autonomy to that country's indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples. Bolivia is a poor and obscure nation, but Rawle believes it is a sort of twenty-first century Soviet Union, determined to stir up trouble, and perhaps even revolution, around the world.

After complaining about the interest of some Maori activists in the Bolivian constitution, Rawle turns his attention to Africa. He is particularly interested in Rhodesia, which was a British colony until 1965, when the white settlers who constituted about a twentieth of its population declared unilateral independence in protest at plans to give black Africans the vote. For fifteen years Rhodesia's whites maintained their rule, despite international protests and a guerrilla war by blacks.
Rhodesia's white rulers imitated the apartheid system of their ally South Africa, banning blacks and whites from marrying, creating whites-only areas in parks and other public spaces, and barring blacks from many higher-paid jobs. For Colin Rawle, though, white-ruled Rhodesia was a beacon of democracy, and its eventual collapse was a tragedy:

Here is the imagined justification for attempting to terminate the great democratic project which, against the most implacable opposition, has been evolving in Western civilisation since the Greek/Roman age…Nothing it seems, has been learned by the vast social errors, of which Zimbabwe is only one example. The crime of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, when it was still a success story by any yardstick, was only that it was British/Western-administered and not yet perfect. Therefore, it had to be “liberated” by an alliance of Western Marxist/socialist zealots and racists, who have always been incapable of seeing the potential good in things which are not yet wholly good.
John Ansell has apparently come to share Colin Rawle's belief that Maori activists and their local supporters are part of an international conspiracy against white people. It is bizarre, nevertheless, to see him posting, on his own blog, an article which praises Rhodesian apartheid. Ansell appears to have been lured so far into the fervid fantasy world of the conspiratorial far right that he has forgotten what a mockery Rawle's defence of real apartheid makes of his own rhetoric about opposing imaginary Maori-led 'apartheid' in New Zealand.
As his support base gets smaller Ansell's politics get more extreme. But his wild talk of the 'Maorification' of New Zealand, his extravagant support for a Holocaust denier like Doutre, and his posting of praise for apartheid Rhodesia only shrink his support further, as even right-leaning Kiwis recoil from his politics. He's no longer welcome in Remuera, that long-time stronghold of his old parties National and Act.

Here’s a tip, John: the next time you launch a campaign which claims, however cynically, to be about racial equality, don’t make a Holocaust denier and admirer of David Irving the intellectual frontman for it. Posting articles which praise apartheid Rhodesia on your blog might not be such a good idea, either.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Why we should celebrate the Apple Maps fiasco

When I heard about the outcry over Apple's new Maps application, I thought that the company must have pinched one or two ideas from my mate Paul Janman.

When he hasn't been jaunting about the country to promote his movie Tongan Ark, Paul has been working on a chaotic interactive map of Auckland's Great South Road which mixes up the details of today and the landmarks of the 1860s, when Pakeha colonists made a route through rough country so that they could send troops and settlers into the Maori-controlled Waikato Kingdom.

 "You'll be the first person to use my map app" Paul warned me recently. "And I'll be filming you. You'll be stumbling round looking for a fort or for some pub that burned down a hundred years ago and you'll walk into a brick wall or a burger joint in Otahuhu. You'll be totally disoriented! It'll be funny."

Apple's map application, which moved whole cities hundreds of kilometres and dropped airports into the sea, sounded eerily like Paul's handiwork. But a series of grovelling statements from Apple bosses make it clear that the company hasn't suddenly gone surrealist, and that Apple Maps is seen as a disaster.

Commentators have advanced two different explanations for Apple's woes. Some have claimed that the software used in the map application is substandard; others have pointed the finger at the cartographic companies which supplied Apple with its information, claiming that they lack enough satellite-based data and don't value crowdsourcing as a form of research.


But there is a more fundamental reason for the failure of Apple maps. Any attempt to create an exhaustive, objective map of the world, together with interactive features which guide users through city centres or tropical forests, will inevitably fail, because map reading is, by its very nature, a partly subjective activity.

Reading a map is like reading a book. Even the longest and most careful work of non-fiction - think of Braudel's massive, murmurous history of the Mediterranean, or Gibbon's six-volume study of the decline and fall of Rome -  is inevitably a selection of details intended to illustrate a subject, rather than an exhaustive treatment of that subject. An author can only pluck a few of the details she considers important out of the limitless complexity of reality. And, because she works with words, an author has to rely on readers to create their own versions of what she describes in their imaginations. The act of reading a book is ineluctably subjective.

Just like authors, cartographers have to select details they consider relevant out of an infinitely complex reality. And just like writers, cartographers appeal to the imaginations of readers. The grey line signifying a street or the green square of a park or the double square symbolising a pa will conjure different images and emotions in different readers.

Before it was denounced by its creators, Apple Maps was criticised by many users who felt that it ignored their particular vision of the world and their particular needs. Users of public transport, for example, were angered to find that Apple hadn't bothered to consider trains and buses when it estimated the fastest way of travelling across this or that city. Apple boasted that its map application would help customers get the most out of the spaces they inhabit, but no programme could hope to cater to the diverse ways we imagine and use our world. When I lived near a major Auckland park, I became fascinated with the different trajectories that different people took across the space. A cyclist seeking a scenic route to work; a pensioner in a mobility scooter anxious to reach the mall on the far side of the pines without stalling or being mugged; an anarcho-primitivist foraging for mushrooms and edible wildflowers; a teenage couple seeking a quiet spot under an obscure tree: all followed different routes through the park, faithful to maps they drew in their heads.
Maps did not always aim at an impossible objectivity. In 1793 a Nga Puhi chief named Tuki Tahua was asked to make a map of Aotearoa. Tahua's drawing, which highlights the Hokianga, makes the distant Te Wai Pounamu into a mere appendage to Ta Ika a Maui, and traces the flight path that the souls of the dead take on their way north to Hawai'iki, is an unashamed expression of his cosmology and experiences. Tahua's map might remind us, in its subjectivism, of those medieval Christian maps which showed Jerusalem at the exact centre of the world.

The advent of hot air balloons and theodolites in the eighteenth century helped make cartography a more scientific discipline. The increased objectivity of modern maps emboldened disciplines like geology and geography, and massively increased our knowledge of the world, though it also made empire-building and warmongering easier.

In recent decades mapping has become a mania for many big Western businesses. Maps have become obsessively detailed, as satellites are put to work depicting and delineating even very remote pieces of the world. We can relate this phenomenon to certain long-running problems of capitalism.

Desperate to restore profit levels after the long postwar boom petered out in the seventies, business has for decades now being trying to squeeze more out of workers by managing their time and space in ever more intensive ways. In many offices as well as factories, the day is broken down into tiny units of half an hour or less, and workers are urged to commit this or that amount of labour to this or that portion of time. In much the same way, many companies seek to increase productivity by minutely delineating and tightly organising space. Employees of large trucking companies are often equipped with special map applications which divide their routes into series of short stages, each of which is correlated with a travel time. In the twenty-first century, space is being Taylorised.

In his essay 'Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism', EP Thompson famously showed how nineteenth century workers in the West gradually internalised the regularity of industrial life, which was symbolised by the clock. The Germans, who were condemned as idlers early in the nineteenth century, came to epitomise punctuality and efficiency within a few decades. And yet EP Thompson would not deny that the demands of the clock and the consciousness of workers could collide, even in well-oiled industrial societies. The struggle for the forty hour week was one example of an attempt to wrest some control of time from the bosses.

In the twenty-first century millions of workers in the West have at least partially internalised the Taylorist attitude to space promoted by many of their employers. They have come to break the surface of the earth into finite regular units, and have gotten into the habit of calculating the distance and time involved in even short journeys. The mania for Apple and Google Maps applications, with their inane voices offering endless advice about shortest possible routes, reflects the success of the new attitude to space.

And yet not even the most devout devotee of Google or Apple Maps can avoid thinking about space in partly subjective terms. None of us can live permanently in a world of square grids and estimated travel times, just as none of us can be quite as regular as a clock.

Accounts of the weeks before the disastrous debut of Apple Maps suggest that many at the company were aware that something was wrong. Instead of recognising the impossibility of making a truly objective and exhaustive map, though, the technicians at Apple worked harder and harder at their quixotic task. As they pulled together more and more information from more and more sources, their map became increasingly contradictory, and their software began to creak.

Apple's angry customers should treat the collapse of the company's foray into map-making as a liberation, not a disaster. They should put away their i phones, open their front doors, take a walk or a drive, and enjoy not having a tinny electronic voice order them about.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]