Saturday, February 28, 2009

The other Giovanni

Giovanni Tiso has been a mainstay of the rambling but often interesting debates about art, politics, and postmodernism that this blog has hosted over the past week or so. Giovanni has played ball with the rest of us, but he has also acted as a sort of referee. He has kept a watchful eye on the complex but occasionally invalid manoeuvres of Richard Taylor, has tactfully ignored the petty provocations of fundamentalist Christian spammers, and has frequently and fearlessly blown the whistle on my breaches of the rules of polemic. Giovanni has even marched me back ten metres when my infractions have been particularly egregious.

In one of his most recent comments on this blog, Giovanni mentioned that he has written a PhD about some of the issues we've been discussing, and justifies this reference by saying that he 'bloody well deserves' a little bit of 'self-promotion'. I agree. You can read Impossible Recollections here.

Giovanni must be one of the best advocates of Derrideanism that has ever put pen to paper. This namesake of his, who is currently enjoying a posthumous retrospective at Auckland's ARTSPACE, might be one of the worst. Giovanni Intra studied at Elam Art School in the early '90s, and was an important member of the loose faction of theory-driven conceptual and installation artists who belatedly came to public consciousness in 2005 when Merylyn Tweedie, aka et al, embarrassed right-thinking Kiwis by exhibiting a toilet that brayed like a donkey at the Venice Biennale. Intra's restrospective covers the years until 1996, when he left these shores for the bright lights of Los Angeles, where he worked as a galleria and curator and continued to produce impenetrable art 'theory'. Intra's death from a drug overdose in 2002 gives the retrospective at ARTSPACE a poignant feel, but the work on display in the sombre white rooms above Karangahape Road fails to convey the energy and intelligence that the young artist obviously possessed. There are dour films, hundreds of photographs of one of the artist's hands, and notebooks filled with drawings and captions that remind me of the doodles we used to fill the insides of exercise books with at school during particularly boring Maths classes. The many drawings of syringes draw our attention because of the artist's tragic fate, not because of any aesthetic qualities. Jokey and anecdotal cartoons entertain, but there are too many second-hand slogans, Derridean non-sequitirs, and self-conscious parodies of other artists' work.

The most visually impressive part of the show is undoubtedly the collection of posters and flyers displayed under the sort of extra-thick glass that slightly old-fashioned museums use to cover their butterflies and beetles. There is something affecting about the way that this ephemera - these energetic, edgy advertisments for long-forgotten exhibitions by unknown young artists at obscure galleries - has been so carefully preserved.

The lack of visual interest in the Intra retrospective would not be a problem, if the ideas which prompted the work were compelling. They are not. Intra's vaguely Situationist belief in the ability of subcultures like the punk and drug scenes to 'subvert' the cultural 'mainstream' seems as jejune as his doodlings. It might have seemed more impressive when it was wrapped up in references to dead Frenchmen. As Giovanni Tiso has taught us over the past week on this blog, though, quoting Derrida and Baudrillard in support of your arguments is like using your mother as a character witness.

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers' catalogue does a good job of emulating Intra's orotund prose style, and makes sure to quote Derrida in almost every second paragraph. Her claim that Intra's 'skinny drawings' are places where 'power and knowledge' are 'taken apart and left undone' makes me want to dig out my old Maths book and take another look at those doodles. Perhaps when I wrote @NARCHY - SMASH THE STATE! I really did destroy capitalism after all. Brettkelly-Chalmers' conclusion seems to accept that Intra is interesting not as an artist or an art theorist, but as a person:

In many ways, Intra's archive works to continue and amplify the enigmatic impression that surrounds his memory. He had a perceptive awareness of himself, the social position of an artist and the mythology it tapped into. The funny nicknames Intra gave himself and others were just the face of his innate ability to make and maintain connections...It is the clever and intriguing, yet somewhat distant collection of anecdotes surrounding Intra's memory that made a small cardboard box of books and catalogues posted to ARTSPACE much more than the sum of its parts.

Once all of the postmodernist waffle is stripped away, Intra appears to have been, like Philip Clairmont or Tony Fomison, a self-mythologising, self-destructive young man in love with a high Romantic image of the artist as a visionary outlaw. Unlike Clairmont or Fomison, though, Intra didn't have the art to go with the pretension.

It's hard to avoid the idea that the proscriptions of postmodernism might have had something to do with Intra's failure to realise himself as an artist. For all their pretensions, Clairmont and Fomison grounded themselves in the local and the autobiographical; Intra, despite his obvious self-obsession, did not. As the redoubtable TJ MacNamara noted in a decidedly lukewarm review, Intra aligned himself with the self-consciously cosmopolitan trend in New Zealand art, and tried to create works which could be as easily exhibited in Milan as Auckland. It is ironic that what intrigues audiences now is not Intra's pseudo-internationalism or his second-hand Derridese, but the story of his life as a young man living in the unfashionable city of Auckland in the 1990s.

If Giovanni Tiso wants to characterise the impact of postmodernism on New Zealand art and literature as progressive, then he needs to account for the failure of Giovanni Intra.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Snow, Descartes, and Derrida

The most recent comments thread on this blog was a triumph of eclecticism - in the space of fourteen comments, we managed to cover television, Jacques Derrida, Kendrick Smithyman, the alleged ten-dimensional nature of the universe, and that hardy perennial of spammers, Young Earth Creationism.

I'm not the first Kiwi blogger to raise the heady subject of the seductive power of postmodernist attitudes to language - that honour belongs, perhaps, to Jack Ross, who posted late last year about his quest for the truth about the old story that the Inuit people have a dozen words or more for snow. Jack began his post with a memory:

I remember once at a party at Scott Hamilton's having quite an acrimonious exchange with one of my fellow-guests over the number of Eskimo words for snow. For years I'd been reading in virtually every book of pop-etymology I picked up that the Eskimos so lived and breathed snow, that they had 16 different words for it - or 32 different words for it - or 44 different words for it ("falling snow" - "sitting snow" - "impacted snow" - "wet-bad-driving-snow" - "good-dry-building-snow" etc. etc. etc.)

I'd been enlarging on my theory that this was complete bullshit to the assembled company, mainly because each book gave a different number for these alleged words for snow, but also because none of them supplied any source for this information beyond some other piece of journalism by one of their bonehead colleagues...Scott's friend erupted at this deluge of smartypants scepticism, and claimed that he personally had visited a museum somewhere in the north of Finland (I think it was) - in the Lapp country, at any rate - and had seen inscribed on the wall of the museum a huge plethora of terms which did indeed represent the full range of Eskimo (or Inuit) terms for snow.

I must admit to having no memory at all of the incident Jack recounts. That doesn't mean, though, that the clash didn't occur: I may simply have drunk too much to preserve any memory of the party he describes, let alone the quarrel that was apparently a highlight the party.

I do remember reading a very funny book called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax by a linguist called Geoffrey Pullum. The book's title essay was, as you've guessed, an onslaught against the notion that the Inuit have a multitude of words for the white stuff: it's remarkable not for its arguments, but rather for the incredible evangelical zeal that Pullum brings to his attempts to demolish the snow myth. Pullum admits to being obsessed with the subject, and to cutting short academic seminars, as well as speeches at weddings, by leaping to his feet and denouncing the dreaded snow hoax at great length. 'Everyone in the room always hates me', he admits, 'but it's worth suffering for the cause of the truth about linguistics'.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jack's efforts on behalf of the truth at that party in the nineties. The Inuit snow myth was very popular in the circles in which I moved back then, largely, I think, because of the popularity of postmodernism in those same circles. Followers of Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard and the rest of the gang were very fond of citing the snow story, because they believed that it illustrated their theory that reality is linguistically constructed, and is capable of unlimited different constructions. I remember the snow myth being rolled out in several seminars and in many of those scintillating coffeehouse arguments that undergraduate students love to have about books they haven't read. (Bar staff were saved from passive smoking by Labour government legislation: I wonder whether there should also be a law to protect baristas from the small talk of undergraduates in dufflecoats who spend all day in cafes skipping their lectures. The poor staff at Boho haunts like DKDs and Brazil must have suffered tremendous mental damage by involuntarily listening to all our piffle in the '90s.)

In yesterday's discussion about postmodernism, Giovanni made an eloquent defence of the phenomenon, by claiming that it was a one-sided but basically progressive development of the themes of the left and the thinking of innovative philosophers like Heidegger:

A lot of the sins ascribed to the ‘original’ postmodernists, as it were, are a function of the churning of their ideas by professional academics in the anglo world, especially in the States, who made it into an industry and built or deconstructed and rebuilt their careers around the fancy and inherbiating new paradigms, sometimes outbidding each other on who could take them to the most ludicrous extremes. But I think the fact remains that the work of the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Barthes and Lyotard (in a continuum with Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, rather than just recycling them) are crucial for an understanding our times, and hardly themselves advocating - any more than a Marxist critic such as Fredric Jameson is - for the delocalisation and internationalisation of culture at the service of late capitalism...

Speaking for students, too, although in a different country at the time, I’d have to say those ideas were fashionable (to use your slightly derogatory term) because they fit in with our political reflections and our activism...

I disagree with Giovanni, and I hope he'll forgive me for explaining why in my usual rambling manner. I think that the phenomenon of postmodernism - and here I take the term to mean the epistemology of Derrida and his co-thinkers, not the plethora of 1980s art movements or the broad 'late capitalist' cultural condition it is often taken to mean - represented a sharp turn away from progressive politics and philosophical innovation.

I think we have to get some perspective on postmodernism by looking at the history of the relationship between capitalism and philosophy. The starting point for a discussion about this relationship must surely be Descartes. It was Descartes who formulated the rules of modern philosophy by creating the ideal of 'absolute knowledge', by rejecting any method which did not yield up such knowledge, and by insisting that the individual - the individual philosopher, to be precise - must attain absolute knowledge on his own, through lonely introspection. Descartes created a chasm between the type of knowledge that can be accumulated and transmitted by the arts and what we nowadays call the human sciences, and the superior knowledge that philosophy and - if they are lucky - the natural sciences can aspire to. Descartes also undermined notions of communities and traditions as repositories of knowledge. Marx argued that Descartes' individualism reflected the beginnings of capitalism, which individuated humans by separating them from the connections that feudalism and other forms of pre-capitalist society had created. Descartes was reproducing ideologically what was happening in the world around him.

The intellectual project that Descartes gradually ran into all sorts of difficulties. In the late eighteenth century, David Hume raised fiendish problems for philosophers by showing that the philosophical justification for the method of induction, which underlay the natural sciences, was inadequate. The dour Scotsman also raised perplexing questions about the nature of causality. Hume's arguments tormented Immanuel Kant, who tried to deal with them by constructing the vast system that is The Critique of Pure Reason. Kant responded to the problems Hume had raised by admitting that pure reason could not arrive at the square root of the universe, and by curtaining off 'ultimate' reality as a 'thing in itself' which could never be experienced directly. Kant's concessions opened up the space in which German idealism, with its emphasis on the gap between the world we experience and an ultimate reality, could thrive.

By the beginning of the twentieth century Western philosophy was in crisis. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 suggested to many philosophers that their crisis was related to a wider social and spiritual malaise, and emboldened a number of attempts to salvage something of Descartes' project. The Logical Atomists, led by Bertrand Russell, were rejecting idealism and returning to the stringency of Descartes by building up an account of the logical structure of reality one sentence at a time. Edmund Husserl and the early phenomenologists were trying to do a somewhat similar thing, although they were determined to examine the mind's apprehension of reality, rather than reality itself. Both the Atomists and the phenomenologists soon became bogged down in debates that appeared, to outsiders at least, positively Talmudic.

A breakthrough only came when the whole paradigm Descartes had put in place was questioned by Martin Heidegger. In his 1928 book Being and Time, Heidegger dismissed the Cartesian notion of an isolated individual sitting down and discovering absolute, eternal truths through a series of deductions or thought experiments. Instead of following such a path, Heidegger tried to draw attention to the 'pre-theoretical' aspects of our thinking - that is, to the presuppositions that we bring to the table when we think about any subject. We do not choose these presuppositions ourselves - they are given to us by our environment, our history, and our traditions. All thought is therefore both social and historically situated.

Nothing seems more absurd to Heidegger than the notion of the philosopher painstakingly accumulating a list of true statements about the world, one statement at a time. In a famous passage of Being and Time, Heidegger aks how we could possibly understand even a simple object like a hammer in isolation from the context of its use. Even if we do a painstaking phenomenological description of the hammer's shape and surface, we will grasp nothing of its nature, because its nature derives from its relation to a whole set of other objects - nails, wood, and so on - and to the uses humans make of it. A hammer simply cannot be understood in isolation; nor, for that matter, can anything.

Heidegger's arguments were repeated (though less interestingly) in the mature philosophy of his contemporary Wittgenstein, and both men echoed, although they did not know it, some of Karl Marx's broadsides against philosophy in texts like the 'Theses on Feuerbach'. Philistine Marxists often interpret their master's claim that 'practice' is the test of all theory as a celebration of political activism as the be all and end all of human existence. But when Marx talked about the primacy of practice, he was not urging his followers on to more paper sales and recruitment drives - he was arguing that the world, human beings, and language exist together in an indissoluble unity, and that it is pointless to try to examine one without reference to the other.

The spectre of radical scepticism which had haunted Descartes seemed to Marx, as it would later seem to Heidegger and Wittgenstein, like a pseudo-problem. It was only because Descartes set the bar for reliable knowledge ridiculously high - only because he accepted only absolute, eternal knowledge, derived through stringently logical thought - that he got worried about such a ridiculous matter as whether or not he existed. Descartes' daily decision to feed and dress himself - his practice - gave the lie to his doubt about whether or not he existed. Wittgenstein made a similar point to Marx's when he compared a philosopher worried by the problem of scepticism to a person who talked endlessly about how thin the ice on a lake close to his home was, and then went out skating on that very same lake.

By focusing on the pre-theoretical foundations of our thinking, which are necessarily social and historically conditioned, Marx, Heidegger and Wittgenstein threatened to bring sociology and history into the privileged space that philosophy had previously held. Can't we, to some extent at least, study the origins and nature of some of the basic presuppositions we bring to our thinking? Although he was ostensibly opposed to the sociology of knowledge, Heidegger connected the 'horizon' of modern thought - that is, some of the presuppositions that we are all burdened with, simply by living in the era of modernity - to the misuse of modern technology and an exploitative attitude to the natural world.

What does all this have to do with the politics of the left? Quite a bit, I'd say. Although Wittgenstein's politics were unclear and Heidegger's were appallingly reactionary, their philosophical inovations had a profound effect on the theory and practice of the left. Heidegger's thought was adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre and other 'existentialist Marxists' after World War Two, and it also influenced Sartre's successor as the world's most famous Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser.

Members of the wave of 'social movements' that arose in the West in the late '60s and early '70s were concerned not only with protest, but with unpicking the ideology of capitalism. When feminists talked about the 'gendered' nature of much academic discourse, and when environmentalists attacked the 'anthropocentrism' of Western culture, they were exposing the theoretical presuppositions that members of Western societies brought to their thought. Marxist sociologists who attacked the popular 'end of class struggle' thesis of Daniel Bell and the hegemonic 'stability' model of social analysis associated with Talcott Parsons were concerned not just with facts and figures, but with the philosophical presuppositions of their adversaries.

As commentators like Alex Callinicos and Perry Anderson have shown, the rise of postmodernism was closely connected with the defeat of the progresive movements of the '60s and '70s and the sharp shift to the political right that occurred throughout the West in the '80s. France led the way in the late '70s, as many of the intellectuals who had espoused a reckless, incoherent form of Maoism in the heady year of 1968 moved to the anti-communist right. Britain and America soon followed, as the Reagan and Thatcher governments moved to smash the unions, pare down the welfare state, and 'reform' the universities.

The postmodernists argued that the relationship between language and reality was arbitrary; 'reality' itself was essentially an epiphenomenal thing, something constructed by our concepts. The evil daemon that had tormented Descartes was back, and his name was language. Although they claimed to reject Descartes and the whole tradition he represents, the postmodernists shared some of the presuppositions of Descartes. Like him, they set the bar for knowledge far too high, and thus fell into the trap of entertaining the nonsensical idea of radical scepticism. Descartes ultimately rejected radical scepticism; the postmodernists didn't.

Postmodernism retained the critiques of the patriachal, anthropocentric, and historically-conditioned 'grand narratives' of Western capitalist society, but it generalised these critiques in an altogether undiscriminating way. Now it was not only the sociology of the likes of Talcott Parsons that was compromised - all attempts at the systematic study of social reality were problematic. It was not only gender-blind historians that were in the dock, but all historians.

Very few postmodernists were merely cynics, who sensed the changing political winds and moved in the right direction. Most of them were reflecting the increased isolation of the intellectual from mass social movements in the 1980s, and the widespread pessimism that swept the left during the decade.

By the time I was studying at the University of Auckland in the mid-90s, and contributing in a small way to the New Zealand literary scene, postmodern ideas had become completely divorced from any sort of political engagement. Almost invariably, the students and writers who were most conversant in the doctrines of Derrida and Barthes were the least interested in social and political issues. I remember going on one of the militant student demonstrations of late 1997, and laying seige to the university's Registry building along with thousands of other students, then bumping into an impeccable Derridean the next day and talking to him about the experience. 'Were you there?' I asked. 'Oh no', he replied, 'I was at a seminar on counter-hegemony'.

I remember a seminar by another student, who was conducting an ardent love affair with Foucault whilst also trying to study gender relations in contemporary New Zealand. After describing the inequalities that still existed between the sexes - unequal pay rates, for instance - in a fairly sensible manner, he lurched into a postmodernist conclusion, and advocated that the government begin paying a special benefit to drag Queens, so as to help them 'break down the hegemony of binary notions of gender' and thereby combat sexism at the 'level of sign and discourse'.

The postmodernist tendency in New Zealand literature, which had been established so enthusiastically by the journals And and Parrallax in the early eighties, had largely exhausted itself by the late nineties. Alan Loney had founded brief to give what he called the 'Other Tradition' a publishing outlet, but the work in the journal was increasingly arid, as the elan that had distinguished the early work of Leigh Davis and John Geraets dwindled into routinism. Davis had become an investment banker, and Geraets had also become convinced of the wonders of capitalism. In a late '90s essay called 'Tete-a-text', he celebrated capitalism as a 'dynamic, progressive' system, in an effort to distinguish his writing from the 'social conscience poetry' of yours truly and Hamish Dewe.

Davis and Geraets saw the chaotic nature of capitalism as an expression of the unmasterable chaos which they believed characterised language and the universe. Any attempt to deny this chaos - by writing in a representational fashion, or intervening in the economy in the interests of social justice - was doomed to failure. To his credit, Geraets did not force his poetics on other people, and when he inherited brief from Loney he opened the journal to new contributors, and thereby helped invigorate it. Jack Ross continued this practice, and the brief of the noughties has borne little resemblance to the journal of the nineties.

The grave events of our decade - the 9/11 attacks, America's new imperialist wars, and now the worldwide crisis of capitalism - have made the prohibitions of postmodernism seem quaint and unattractive, to writers and academics alike. We have no choice but to deal in 'grand narratives' and 'systemic analysis', if we want to steer a path through an era which resembles the tumultuous sixties and seventies more than the quiescent nineties.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Reasons for choosing Smithyman over American Idol

It seems I can't please anybody at the moment. After being pilloried by the Garage Collective for my love of art galleries and similar bourgeois indulgences, I've been condemned by an anonymous commenter for abstaining from last Friday night's episode of American Idol. According to my latest critic, I should have been in the lounge room with Skyler and Muzzlehatch, cooing and cackling at the renditions of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Let's Get It On', instead of sitting alone in the kitchen defiantly reading Kendrick Smithyman's 1983 poem 'Deconstructing':

That Smithyman poem was weak. It's just a typical boring New Zealand nature poem, with a pretentious title thrown in to deceive readers. Well, to try to deceive them.

How just is this criticism of the man nicknamed by his peers 'the sly old fox of New Zealand verse'? It's true that 'Deconstructing' is set in the Kiwi countryside - the action, such as it is, takes place in the vicinity of Donnelly's Crossing, a village located between Dargaville and Waipoua in Smithyman's beloved Northland. But I believe that the poem is a good deal more than a simple Kiwi pastoral. In order to defend 'Deconstruction' I want discuss some of the complex background to the poem.

By the 1980s the curious creed known as postmodernism had reached the English Department of the University of Auckland, where Smithyman taught. A new generation of students was challenging the orthodoxies of its teachers by making provocative claims about the ‘death of the author’ and the ‘constructed nature of reality’. A stylish new literary journal called And was established by students and junior members of staff to help spread the gospel of Derrida and Barthes. Young writers like Leigh Davis and John Geraets tried to turn the imported French theory into poetry.

Arguments about postmodernism were only part of a wider conflict between 'internationalist' and 'nationalist' tendencies in New Zealand arts. The old question of whether Kiwi artists ought to create work which reflected a distinct national identity was kicked back and forth by painters, writers, musicians, critics, and academics. For one critic, the opposition between internationalism was and nationalism was symbolised by the gap between the cool abstract canvases of Max Gimblett - a Kiwi who relocated to New York, as soon as he could afford to - and the scruffily realistic paintings of the New Zealand backblocks that Dick Frizzell churned out in the late '80s and early '90s.

Many of the self-styled postmodernists linked their brash rejection of the 'local and special' to their contempt for what philosophers like to call the naive realist theory of language and the correspondence theory of truth. Derrida's ridicule of the idea that humans can access a pre-linguistic reality - that we can simply invent words for things that were already 'out there' - resonated with the postmodernists' weariness with the cliches of realistic art and writing. If reality was structured through language, and the 'truths' which art and literature told about the world were the product of language, not the correspondence of words with a pre-existing reality, then why bother trying to capture the 'local and special'? One might as well write or paint about anything, or indeed nothing, it seemed.

Smithyman was no stranger to philosophy. He had been one of the first Kiwi intellectuals to read Heidegger and Wittgenstein, philosophers who had challenged the correspondence theory of truth much more intelligently than Derrida would, and he had long been fascinated by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who proclaimed that the world was continually in flux. (Smithyman was also familiar with the work of Marx and Lenin - both of them big fans of Heraclitus - from an early age, thanks to the influence of his father, who was a radical trade unionist.)

Smithyman's reading in philosophy is reflected, to some extent at least, in his rejection of notions of a nationalist 'New Zealand manner' of poetry. In his 1965 book-length study of Kiwi poetry, A Way of Saying, Smithyman describes Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch's poems about New Zealand identity - poems which talked about a young, ahistorical land full of 'empty hills' crying 'for meaning' - as part of a 'South Island myth' which did not describe the reality of most Kiwis' lives. Smithyman's awareness of the difficulty of distinguishing language and reality, and of the complexities which airy generalisations could disguise, made him extremely attentive to the details of the world around him. His poems about New Zealand attempt again and again to illuminate places and human experiences that have been ignored or distorted. In one part of 'Deconstructing' Smithyman seems almost overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task he has set himself:

An abandoned railway line’s last
station, scruffy general store also garage
wornout fridges at roadside where used to be
old milkcans for meat and mail; after,
that place where the post office was and the school
then, and then where the school before that was.
It’s all sheep now.

God, how many years of it
passing through, passing by. I was transported,
have driven, drive. Going from here to there,
that’s a text. And another text, and one more, rewritten.

Smithyman's rejections of naive realism and literary nationalism did not imply an acceptance of the postmodernism which became suddenly fashionable amongst his students in the 1980s. Smithyman's obsession with New Zealand landscape and history, and his proud identification of himself as a 'provincial' flew in the face of the rather self-conscious cosmopolitanism of many of the postmodernists. The impatience that some postmodernists felt toward Smithyman's provincialism was expressed by John Geraets, who complained to me that Smithyman's poems were so full of local reference that they could not be easily 'exported' to readers in other cultures. Geraets felt that most New Zealanders, let alone French or Americans, would struggle to understand much of Atua Wera, Smithyman's epic poem about the Hokianga prophet Papahurihia, without either travelling to Northland or doing a great deal of reading in the history of the region. (To his credit, John was prepared to make that sort of effort - he wrote a Masters thesis on Smithyman which he honed into an influential essay for Landfall.)

I think that what John Geraets saw as a weakness in Smithyman's poetry is in fact a strength. Now that the high waters of postmodernism have receded, we can see that the phenomenon produced a large amount of writing and visual art which seems altogether disposable. Without the elan of intellectual fashion to ride on, an installation by Merylyn Tweedie or a poem by Leigh Davis seems an insubstantial thing, an accumulation of whims that is as pretentious as it is arbitrary.

For all the overheated language of its manifestoes, postmodernism was coopted extraordinarily easily by commerce, and its susceptibility has to be related to the traits it shared with the neo-liberal economic, social, and political thinking that was so in vogue in the '80s and '90s. Just as many postmodernist artists wanted to produce a highly mobile, international work stripped of references to the 'local and special' and roots in communities, so neo-liberal economists and politicians talked of making 'capital mobile' and 'pulling down the walls' - protected markets, nationalised assets, welfare systems - that protected communities from international market forces.

It is perhaps not surprising that Leigh Davis, the shrillest New Zealand advocate of postmodernist literature, became a Treasury economist and then an investment banker after leaving university. As a senior executive at the Fay Richwhite company, Davis helped to gut the New Zealand railways system, which had been sold to his employers for a pittance by the neo-liberal Lange-Douglas government. By the time Fay Richwhite had chewed up the railways, thousands of New Zealanders had lost their jobs, and whole towns had been closed down.

As a critic and poet, Davis advocated and created fragmentary texts, made up of units of reference ripped from any recognisable historical and social context. Words were mere counters, to be moved about in complex games. As a member of Treasury and a suit at Fay Richwhite, Davis treated human beings as mere economic counters, to be shunted this and way and that - or, worse, cast onto the scrapheap - according to the rigorous but irrational prescriptions of neo-liberal ideology.

Smithyman was not a particularly political man - he had what he called a 'love affair' with Marx and Lenin in his twenties, but his passion for any sort of direct political engagement soon cooled. Nevertheless, his poems can be treated as acts of resistance against the cultural logic of capitalism in the era of globalisation. If postmodernists were, to use the priceless phrase of Alex Callinicos, the 'intellectual shock troops of neo-liberalism', then Smithyman can be counted as one of the intellectual defenders of the landscapes and histories that neo-liberalism would like to deny and desecrate. Smithyman's poems stress the value of the natural world and the human community, and the right of both to persist on their own terms:

A blackback perched
on the old beerhouse macrocarpa
examines us, opposed to our business,
objecting to our reasons and whatever motives
have people shoot off some film to flash
his domain as so many black and white

If people are suspicious of you
don't be surprised or offended.
Try not to give offence.

They have been offended against
for several generations. They have good
reasons for being suspicious.

If you talk of the dead, be tactful.
The dead are emphatic presence.
They are there in visible ground of being,
they are there, caved in the hills.
They have nothing to do with you,
they may say.

Cave robbing, grave spoiling,
these are (remember) unhappy facts
remembered. If you are asked "What do you
expect to get out of this? Why are
you doing this?" answer as honestly
as you can, remembering

in turn, not one family or clan here
has not had experience of dealing
with men who swore they were honest.

The dense web of local references, unique syntax, and eccentric lexicons of Smithyman's poems means that they embody the resistance to 'black and white images' that their author urges.

What can we say, then, about 'Deconstructing'? Is it really a cliched description of rural New Zealand, adorned with a pretentious and misleading title? I think that the poem's title is essential to its meaning. 'Deconstructing' can be read a poem which turns the tables on fashionable postmodernists by taking the unfashionable Heraclitus and the equally unfashionable countryside near Dargaville and using them to deliver a lecture on the fluid nature of reality. It is not necessary, the poet seems to be implying, for us to make fools of ourselves by chasing hopelessly after an intellectual bandwagon from America or Europe - if we look hard around us, and if we look hard at the past, then we can find enough complexity and flux to keep ourselves very busy indeed. Smithyman seems to offer a similar lesson in one of his most famous poems, 'Reading the Maps an Academic Exercise':

Carry on to the Head. You cross
the old tramway which used to go up to
the Harbour, remains of the one time main road
to gumfields (south of the river and this next
river) out from the edge of the Forest. It went on
down the coast, then climbed inland on the line
Of a Maori trail. Of course, the map doesn’t
say anything about that. Maps can

tell you about what is supposedly present.
They know little about what’s past and only
so much about outcomes. They work within
tacit limits. They’re not good at predicting.
If everything is anywhere in flux
Perhaps we may not read the same map twice.
In 'Deconstructing', Smithyman alludes again to Heraclitus’s claim that ‘one does not step twice into the same river’, as he considers the natural and human changes that a creek in rural Northland moves through, as it flows toward the sea, and the constantly-changing way that we view the creek. Smithyman warns that what seems well-known – the Kiwi countryside, a Greek philosopher dead thousands of years – can contain all types of surprises:

Going from here to there,
that’s a text. And another text, and one more, rewritten.
The seeing part, and saying part...

Heraclitus was only talking about rivers,
or about when a shallow creek running over stone
begins to think that it’s a river.

In 'Deconstructing', Smithyman shows that one need not reject an engagement with community and history to object to the strictures of naive realism and nationalist literature. A poet can be provincial and yet highly sophisticated. Perhaps 'Deconstructing', and Smithyman's poetry in general, is that rare thing - the manifesto of a movement which has not yet been born.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Eyewitness account of bourgeois decadence

Where are the Garage Collective when you need them? A few metres from me, Skyler and Muzzlehatch are at this moment (well, not quite at this moment - the ads are on) watching American Idol - and noisily enjoying it (yes, their applause/cackling persists into the ad breaks!). Don't implicate me in their crimes - I'm reading Kendrick Smithyman.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Confessions of a bourgeois artist

The Garage Collective, which seems to be a group of left-wing printmakers based in Wellington, has posted a rather unflattering portrait of the New Zealand arts community on indymedia. According to the Collective, Kiwi artists are the servants of the 'bourgeois or corporate class and their markets'. Because we don't call with sufficient enthusiasm for the 'abolishment (sic) of capitalism', we collectively constitute 'a tree that has turned into a club', and we should be 'left to die'.

It seems that the Garage Collective means to refer to writers as well as visual artists when they talk about 'art', so I suppose my name would have to figure somewhere on their lengthy blacklist of hopelessly decadent bourgeois artists.

Over the years I've produced a lot of political writing - leaflets, articles, and so on - for various left-wing causes. At the same time, though, I've published poetry in a number of journals, and in a book.

My poems do not argue for the abolition of capitalism, or indeed for any other worthy cause. Nor do the vast majority of the poems, novels, albums, and paintings produced by my friends in different parts of the arts community. Is this evidence for the Garage Collective's argument that we're a bunch of corporate propagandists? If we are, then we're not being paid very well for our propaganda - most of us are broke. And we'd make poor propagandists, even if we were paid well, because most of us have solidly left of centre political views. Although my political views are probably further to the left than most of my peers, my involvement in political activism is not unusual. I run into poets and painters and musicians on all sorts of demonstrations.

The demand that art take to 'the barricades' by communicating a particular political message is not new on the left. It was the basis of the doctrine of 'socialist realism' which pro-Moscow Communist Parties imposed upon their intellectuals for decades. Party bureaucrats rejected almost all modernist art as 'bourgeois', because painters like Picasso and writers like James Joyce didn't seem to 'take sides' in the class struggle. Party publications featured 'literary pages' which were full of dreary odes to Soviet tractors and Stalin's moustache. I realise that the Garage Collective doesn't advocate Stalinist politics, but they ought to be aware of where the demand for the unification of art and politics can lead.

I believe that art and politics should be kept apart, or at least at arm's length, because good art can achieve things which political discourse cannot. It is not a matter of valuing art over politics, or politics over art, but of recognising that they offer two different ways of thinking and acting.

The hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who enjoy art in its various forms are not all simply hopeless dupes of capitalism, imbibing the propaganda of the Business Roundtable as they admire a Hotere canvas or read Janet Frame or listen to Miles Davis.

For many of us, art offers a space in which we can escape from the day to day exigencies of life in a twenty-first century capitalist society and enter into a contemplative frame of mind. In this frame of mind we are able to look at our lives and our world from new perspectives, and receive insights we would otherwise miss. Art also helps us to imagine alternatives to the way we live our lives, and to the way our society is organised. It is art's refusal to caught up in the urgency of day to day issues and political sloganeering which makes it so valuable, especially in a society like ours.

With their demand that art be useful - that it get onto 'the barricades' and help promote this or that cause - the Garage Collective actually betray the influence of the ideology of capitalism on their thinking. Capitalism relentlessly instrumentalises both people and things, demanding that they prove that they are 'useful' if they want to survive. In our society, even public hospitals and forest parks have their value 'quantified', and are subject to business 'plans'. The artist who refuses to be 'useful' by creating works that can easily be interpreted and co-opted is taking a far more radical stance than the person who churns out political propaganda.

To say all this is not to argue in favour of 'art for art's sake' or against the idea that art can have political consequences. It is to say that art can be at its most radical and powerful when it refuses to push a political barrow. One of my favourite contemporary New Zealand artists is Brett Graham, who is of Ngati Koroki and Ngati Pakeha descent and frequently addresses the history of colonisation and anti-colonial struggle in his work. I've recently written about Graham's exhibition Campaign Rooms, which is a response to the 2007 police raids on Tuhoe Country that refuses easy political slogans. Graham works on a deeper level than sloganeering can reach, meditating on the conceptual foundations of the colonial state and the symbolism used by that state. He knows the difference between art and propaganda.

I've written at greater length about the idea that art should be radical by avoiding political slogans in this essay, which was published last year in the literary journal brief.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Herald vs Hugo

In a small corner of a back page of this morning's New Zealand Herald one can find the headline 'Venezuela votes on limitless term for leader'. The attached article claims that:

Venezuelans will decide President Hugo Chavez's future today in a referendum that could end term limits...On the eve of the vote, Chavez - first elected in 1998 -said the proposed constitutional amendment would deepen democracy by allowing voters to choose the officials they want...He shrugged off opposition talk of dictatorship, pointing out that Franklin Roosevelt was elected United States President four times...

Without a constitutional amendment, Chavez will have to leave office in 2013. He lost a broader referendum in December 2007 that also sought to abolish presidential term limits, and says nothing is stopping him from trying again if he loses this time.

What Chavez is seeking in today's referendum is an end to the limit on the number of times Venezuela's President can be re-elected. Under the country's Bolivarian constitution, which was drawn up by an elected assembly and approved by referendum in the first year of Chavez's rule, a President can only serve two terms in office.

Chavez's second term expires in 2013, and we wants to stand for re-election at the end of that term. For this reason, he and his supporters - a million of them marched through Caracas the other day - have gone to the voters to seek approval for an amendment to the constitution.

The Herald's article is radically misleading, because it repeatedly suggests that Chavez wants to extend his rule by making his current term as President limitless. There is a world of difference between a 'President for life', who never has to go to the voters to renew his mandate, and a President who spends a long period in office because he is repeatedly approved by the voters. Chavez is quite right to use Roosevelt as an example of leader who was re-elected repeatedly, yet never became a dictator.

In its attempt to portray Chavez as a threat to democracy, the Herald's article echoes, whether consciously or unconsciously, the propaganda of the Venezuelan opposition, the US government and many right-wing newspapers and blogs. The opportunism of the anti-Chavez propagandists is extraordinary. When the Bolivarian constitution was created a decade ago, the Venezuelan opposition and its overseas supporters condemned the document as a blueprint for 'totalitarianism'. The leaders of the US-backed coup which wrested power from Chavez for a couple of days in 2002 unceremoniously tore up the constitution and instituted martial law. Now, suddenly, the constitution has become a rock of democracy which must not be altered in any way.

I'm sorry if I sound like an apologist for tyranny, but I think that it should be up to the Venezuelan people, and not the governments and the media of the West, to decide who occupies the Presidential palace in Caracas.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Keeping cool

I've written the latest Picks of the Week column for the Scoop Review of Books.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


We move haltingly, as though we are walking on a frozen lake or a rotting swing bridge, and not on the smooth hot tar of Queen Street. There have been the messages to the facebook group set up to promote the event, there have been the e mails to organisers, there have been the comments on that indymedia thread - abuse, promises of violent confrontation, warnings about the safety of family and friends.

For Kiwi political activists that sort of thing is, at worst, irritating, the sort of empty machismo that the anonymity of the internet both encourages and quarantines. For people exiled from Tamil Eelam, though, it is terrifying. Many of the people marching down Queen Street today were driven from their homes by the violence of the Sri Lankan state. There are stories of helicopters strafing villages, of cluster bombs landing in schools, of police with long batons beating parents in front of their children. The people these exiles left behind in Tamil Elam have become hostages in a huge open-air prison. The safety of the hostages depends, in part, upon the behaviour of their friends and families in the diaspora. Even when they live in relatively democratic societies like New Zealand, the Tamils share in the imprisonment of their kin. The phrase 'we'll be watching you' was repeated incessantly on Facebook and on indymedia: it was a promise, and a threat.

Now we eye the footpaths of Queen Street anxiously, examining each of the photographers in turn. There is a trusted man, one of the organisers of today's march, carefully photographing flags and placards, avoiding headshots. There is a junior reporter - for the Herald, or the Sunday Star-Times ? - snapping dutifully away. There is a Japanese tourist, bewildered and intrigued by this sudden eruption of anger and grief on a Saturday afternoon, adding a few photos to show to his in-laws, bits of exotica fit to sit beside bubbling mud pools and ice cream-white mountains in his slide show. How can we tell, though, who might be shooting this march from a more secluded, a more cowardly location - from some seventh-floor office, or a parked van with tinted windows?

It is not only surveillance that has been promised us. 'There's supposed to be a demonstration of Sinhala fascists on its way, coming up from the bottom of the street' someone mutters. 'Doubt it. They might try to ambush us from a side street though' someone else ventures. In London, in Canada, and in Germany, large pro-Tamil demonstrations have been disrupted by tiny but violent groups of right-wing Sinhalese; could the same thing happen in Auckland? I notice that the police have made a blue line about halfway down Queen Street.

As the main body of the march leaves Aotea Square the chanting begins. STOP THE KILLING - WE WANT PEACE! NEW ZEALAND - HELP US! LTTE - FOR TAMILS! Bilingual placards echo each slogan. I watch a small boy hoist a flagpole; the wind unfurls the huge banner, showing a tiger jumping out of a field of brilliant red. The tiger's eyes are red and angry; they stare over our heads, off into the far distance. At least a dozen marchers hold up the same large, slightly faded photograph of a portly, middle-aged man, a man whose faint smile is almost hidden by the sort of moustache that is still popular in South Asia, but which is noawadays the preserve of porn stars and cops in the West. A group of teenage girls begin a new chant: OUR LEADER - PRABHAKAN! PRABHAKAN - OUR LEADER!

I have been criticised by a number of people on the left for attending and speaking at the last pro-Tamil demonstration, and for publicising this one. This message, which art historian and Labour Party member Paul Litterick left on my blog, is representative:

I suspect the reason there is so little support for the Tamils among the majority is that the Tamil Tigers are a bunch of murderous racists, responsible for massacres of civilians, ethnic cleansing of Muslims, arms dealing and credit-card fraud in several countries. They are not really the sort of people you would want on your side, if you want any sympathy from the rest of the world.

This march is the action of a United Front. In a United Front groups and individuals with a range of views come together over an issue on which they agree. Everyone on this march shares the demand for an end to Sri Lankan attacks on the people of Tamil Eelam. To claim that everyone on the demonstration agrees with all the views of a particular organisation on the demonstration would be nonsense. One might as well accuse all of the Tamils of being Marxists, because the mostly-Pakeha Marxist group Socialism Aotearoa is here today.

I am not surprised that the defenders of the Sri Lankan state's actions struggle to understand the notion of a United Front: the Sri Lankan state tries to brand all of its opponents as terrorists, instead of recognising the diversity of their viewpoints. It is more disappointing that some people on the left don't understand the concept.

Along with most of the twenty or so non-Tamil members of this protest, I am walking behind a small, handmade Global Peace and Justice banner near the front of the march. We want to help show the media, the Auckland public, and the snap-happy Japanese tourist that Tamils are not the only people who care about the bloody occupation of their homeland. A group of young Tamil men jog ahead of our banner, and begin to trail a Sri Lankan flag down Queen Street. I've seen that banner, with its golden, impassive lion holding an upright, unstained sword, waving about in the wind at Eden Park to celebrate a splendid century by Aravinda de Silva. Now the flag signifies burnt villages and shrapnel wounds. The young men spit on the lion's face, and stamp on its sword.

Suddenly half a dozen voices begin can be heard just behind us. I turn, and see the crowd surging and blurring, as people fall over each other. Have we been attacked? Is somebody firing a rifle, or swinging a knife? Are the supporters of the Sri Lankan government making good their threats? I push towards the centre of the confusion, and see two bodies wrestling. I see a marshall trying to pin another man on the hot tar. The marshall seems calm, but the other man's eyes are huge and wild. His whole body is shaking, and he screams the same phrase - is he screaming in Sinhala, or in Tamil? - over and over.

A third man grasps desperately at the left fist of the screaming man, trying to prise a cigarrette lighter loose. I see a small flame flicker, and I notice that the screaming man's clothes are drenched in some sort of liquid. 'He's trying to set himself on fire! Stop him!' a woman screams, falling to her knees beside the melee. A cop pushes her aside, and begins to grapple dumbly with the marshall. 'It's alright, sir, he's one of us', somebody shouts in the cop's ear. 'He lost half his family in Sri Lanka. It's alright. He's alright now.' The screaming has stopped, and the exhausted man is being tenderly frogmarched towards the pavement. He shakes more gently now, and begins to sob. The cop shrugs, picks up the little yellow lighter, and wanders away. Later, there are contradictory accounts of what the screaming man had been trying to do in Queen Street on that hot Wednesday evening. Someone told me that he had been trying to imitate the Indian journalist who recently immolated himself in a vain protest at his government's indifference to the plight of the Tamil people. Someone else insisted that the man had merely wanted to burn the Sri Lankan flag. The flag did eventually burn, at the end of the march. It is still burning on youtube, where a group of supporters of the Sri Lankan government can be found making fresh threats against 'Tamil terrorists and their friends'. They were filming us, after all. I hope that nobody loses relatives in Tamil Eelam because they had the temerity to burn a flag.

Friday, February 06, 2009

War in the head

One hundred and forty-one years ago Gilbert Mair, founder and leader of the feared Arawa Flying Column, chased a man named Aporo into a cave under a waterfall near Tauranga and shot him dead. The killer caught his breath, then began to rifle through Aporo's tatty garments. Mair was hoping to find a message from one of the rebel Maori villages hidden in the densely forested ranges behind Tauranga harbour, or perhaps even a map showing the trails that led into the ranges, and the network of pa that guarded the approaches to the rebel villages.

What Mair found in Aporo's jacket pocket surprised him. The rebel had been carrying a notebook, but instead of instructions from headquarters or maps of the local terrain it was full of strange black and white drawings. Mair turned the pages, bewildered by the depictions of giant pillars, exploding suns, and impossibly large battle machines. Anti-colonial slogans and cryptic, apparently religious phrases were scattered across the pages.

Aporo's Book of Dreams has baffled and thrilled generations of scholars. The massive war machines in several of Aporo's drawings have proven particularly difficult for historians to interpret. How was Aporo able to imagine these devices, which today remind us of scenes from science fiction films? Could he have been making blueprints for machines that he and his fellow rebels aimed to build? How could a small band of bedraggled, poorly armed men possibly entertain such a conceit? Did Aporo hope that supernatural forces would bring the machines of death down to Aotearoa and drive the invaders into the sea?

Scholars have tended to suggest that Aporo's war machines were exercises in wishful thinking, scrawled on rainy nights in the bush by a man caught inextricably in the nightmare of war. For all its plausibility, this interpretation ignores the different levels upon which war can be fought. The anti-colonial struggle of Aporo and his comrades proceeded on a conceptual as well as a military plane. Aporo and his band of fighters were all 'Hauhaus' - followers of the Pai Marire religion which had been founded a few years earlier in the Taranaki by the prophet Te Ua. Like Te Kooti, whose own prophetic career was just beginning when Aporo was shot, Te Ua turned the white man's Bible on its head, making the Old Testament a history of the Maori people and the Book of Revelations a prophecy of the defeat of the invaders. Te Ua's followers pronounced their superiority over the adherants of other religions, and revived many Maori cultural practices that white missionaries had tried to stamp out.

Some historians have bemoaned the transition of Pai Marire from peaceful religious movement to violent resistance struggle, but it was always inevitable that the doctrine of Te Ua would lead to the wars Aporo and others fought. Anglican missionaries had been an essential part of the invasion force which poured into Aotearoa in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Bishop Augustus Selwyn had marched beside General Cameron at the head of the twelve thousand strong army that crossed the borders of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863. Anglican churches in war zones like Franklin and Wanganui were built with especially thick walls, and had rifle holes cut into their sides, so that they could become makeshift blockhouses whenever Maori raiding parties approached. By dethroning the white man's God and proclaiming the righteousness of resistance, Te Ua inevitably provoked the wrath of the invader.

Aporo's drawings can be considered part of the conceputal counter-offensive that Te Ua began. His depictions of invincible war machines and an apocalyptic end to the British occupation of Aotearoa are not just flights of whimsy - they are attempts to make the notion of British defeat and Maori supremacy imaginable, in the face of colonial politicans' talk about racial superiority and missionaries' condemnations of Maori culture. Like Blake's visions of the divine judgement of the Britain's King and London's industrialists, Aporo's Book of Dreams is a righteous and furious thought experiment.

Maori have not ceased to challenge the imagery and mythology of colonialism. Four years ago, at a ceremony held to mark the entrance of the Waitangi Tribunal into the rohe of the Tuhoe people, Tame Iti fired an antique gun into a New Zealand flag laid on the grass outside Ruatoki marae. Iti's act prompted outrage amongst sections of the Pakeha population of New Zealand, and led to the massive police raid on a Ruatoki 'terror cell' in October 2007. With his rotund figure, his outdated rifle, and his high public profile, Tame Iti seems an unlikely guerrilla, yet the New Zealand state sent scores of armed men on a dawn raid to capture him and a few of his followers, and then made a farcical attempt to charge him with terrorism. The fear that Iti continues to inspire amongst many Pakeha comes not from his military prowess, but from his conceptual offensive against the New Zealand state. By attacking the New Zealand flag with the same sort of colonial musket that the Hauhaus used, Iti desecrates a symbolic order which is as important to the legitimacy of the state as the guns of the army and the batons of the police. Like Aporo's visionary drawings, Iti's performance art is a declaration of war.

Brett Graham is an artist from the Ngati Koroki subtribe of Tainui, and his recent exhibition Campaign Rooms was conceived as a response to the October 2007 police invasion of Tame Iti's homeland. Speaking to the New Zealand Herald about his show, Graham noted that Tainui had been given back an old air base at Te Rapa as part of their 1995 settlement with the Crown. 'I've been fantasising about the weapons we might be building there', he said, in an effort to explain the sculptures, drawings and film he placed in the lower floor of Auckland's Two Rooms gallery.

Graham’s show was dominated by two ‘Maorified’ Stealth bombers sculpted from a mixture of wood and bronze. With a wonderful disdain for the principles of aerodynamics, Graham covered his bombers with carvings of a variety of motifs from traditional Maori art. (There are precedents for Maori treating non-traditional weapons in this way: the Auckland War Memorial Museum museum displays a musket which was covered in carvings by an anonymous soldier in Te Kooti’s army.) Graham’s exhibition also included a series of intricate and sinister blueprints for his bombers, a large work called Spirit of Aloha made from scrap metal salvaged in Hawaii, and a short, eerie film showing a young man dressed in hybrid Polynesian-Arab clothing performing a war dance.

Campaign Rooms has the same provocative qualities as Tame Iti’s performance at Ruatoki marae in 2005. Like the shot Iti fired at the New Zealand flag, Graham's exhibition is a symbolic attack on a state many Maori still associate with injustice and violence.

Yet Graham’s art is capable of working at a deeper, subtler level than Iti’s bellicose gestures. Campaign Rooms challenges the ideology of colonialism, as well as the state that the colonial era has bequeathed us. Graham’s unashamed use of ‘gratuitous’ surface decoration, for instance, represents a rejection of the modernist aesthetic that seduced many Maori sculptors in the decades after World War Two. In his Herald interview, Graham noted that his own father was a carver and sculptor who was persuaded to abandon traditional Maori decorative motifs in favour of the ‘clean lines and smooth surfaces’ promoted by modernist gurus like Henry Moore and Le Corbusier. The theoreticians of visual modernism talked about creating a ‘universal style’, and often connected their aesthetics to progressive, internationalist politics. Le Corbusier, for instance, was a socialist who associated gratuitous ornamentation of buildings and sculptures with the decadence of bourgeois society. In retrospect, though, we can see that the universalism of modernism hid a strong residue of imperial hubris. The ‘clean lines’ and ‘smooth surfaces’ that many modernist sculptors and architects celebrated remind us of nothing so much as the skylines of First World cities. Le Corbusier’s disastrous attempts to create an ‘ideal city’ in the heart of India revealed the distance between his chilly sensibility and the culture of the people he wanted to ‘liberate’. In New Zealand, Graham suggests, modernism was the aesthetic corollary of assimilationism, the government policy that sought to ‘mainstream’ Maori by making them abandon their culture.

By creating innovative work which nevertheless acknowledges the baroque, fantastic qualities of his people’s traditional art, Graham reminds us of some of the visionary Maori masterpieces of the nineteenth century, like Aporo’s Book of Dreams and the painted meeting houses of Te Kooti. Despite his intense interest in Maori experience, Graham eschews any sort of cultural nationalism. The work that was gathered in Campaign Rooms reaches out beyond Aotearoa to the northern Pacific and North Africa. Spirit of Aloha is a comment on the situation of the Hawaiian people, who lost their independence at the end of the nineteenth century and have since seen large parts of their turangawaewae turned into an American scrapyard.

For its part, Graham's movie alludes to a painting by Joshua Reynolds which dressed a young Polynesian up in the garb that European painters of the eighteenth century normally gave to North Africans. For Reynolds and many of his comtemporaries, both the Arabs and the Polynesians were defined by their ‘otherness’, rather than by any positive traits. As such, they were the object of both hysterical fear and patronising curiousity. Graham's film reminds us that a similar ignorance has caused some European New Zealanders to make both radical Maori and Muslims into bogeymen in the years since 9/11. The media’s wild claims that Tame Iti had links to Islamist terror groups, and the nicknaming of his non-existent armed group ‘Te Qaeda’ illustrate this phenomenon. In an era when sellout Maori politicians hobnob with Tories on Waitangi Day, Brett Graham's art reminds us that not all of the indigenous people of Aotearoa have forgotten the legacy of Aporo and other rebels against injustice. Campaign Rooms is a worthy successor to Aporo's Book of Dreams and this country's other great works of visionary protest.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Nothing Solidified

Decoys - a blog that describes itself as 'practically the double of Decoys Decoys' - has published an improvisation based (partly) upon my recent post about Rosey Feltham's and Janine Park's dance piece Spirits of the Stone. Cheers, folks.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The rhetoric of evasion

Over the past few days there's been a lot of discussion at indymedia and on this blog about the Sri Lankan attacks on Tamil Eelam. Unfortunately, there has been little real dialogue. The apologists for the Sri Lankan armed forces have employed a set of rhetorical manouevres which have been perfected over the past few years by defenders of Bush's wars in the Middle East and Israel's attacks on Palestine. These manouevres are not intended as a contribution to discussion - they are aimed at pre-empting any genuine debate.

If anyone is interested in playing the right-wingers' game, all they have to do is learn a few simple steps:

1. Equate the whole of the nation you are attacking (Tamil Eelam, Palestine) with the most extreme rhetoric and deeds of the most extreme individuals in that nation (eg, pounce on the anti-semitic language used by some leaders of the small Islamic Jihad group, and claim that it expresses the viewpoint of all Palestinians; note the attacks by a few armed Tamils on the Sinhalese minority in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1980s, and claim that all Tamils want to exterminate the Sinhala majority of Sri Lanka).

2. Deprive the aforementioned words and deeds of any sort of historical context, so that they seem like expressions of a deep-rooted, irrational worldview (forget that the anti-semitism of some Palestinians is an unhealthy response to decades of oppression by a Jewish state; ignore the fact that Tamils who attacked the Sinhala minority in Jaffna in the '80s were responding, however wrongly, to the slaughter of thousands of their compatriots in the south of Sri Lanka in a government-orchestrated pogrom).

3. Claim that the sheer irrationality of your opponents' actions shows that their claim to be oppressed is false. Claim that even if their demands were met, they would continue to hate and fight you. Conclude that there is no point in negotiating with them, or offering them any concessions. (You might like to quote Bibi Netanyahu, who says that a Palestinian state will do nothing to stop the conflict in his part of the world, or Prime Minister Rajapaksee, who says that there is 'only a military solution' to Tamil grievances.)

4. Condemn any outside party - it might be a protest group in the West, an NGO, or even an arm of the UN - which criticises your approach to the conflict, and imply that they are giving support to irrational, evil forces.

5. Sit at your keyboard and cheer as the bombs fall and the bullets fly.

The demonstration I attended on Saturday did not demand solidarity with the Tamil Tigers - it called for a ceasefire in the fighting which has left a quarter of a million people displaced. Do those who have condemned the event really believe that there is a military solution to the grievances of the Tamil people? Do they imagine that Tamil people will suddenly embrace the Sri Lankan state and forget their grievances, if enough of their families and friends are killed?

Even if the Sri Lankan Army over-runs all the Tiger-held territories, there will be no lasting stability in Sri Lanka, because Tamil people will see the army as an occupying force rather than a liberator. Without some form of political settlement - the sort of settlement that can only arrived at through negotiation - the violence will continue indefinitely.

The people of Tamil Eelam have consistently expressed their desire to be either autonomous from or completely independent of that state. Their desire has been reflected in the popularity of the Federal Party amongst Tamils in the '50s and
'60s, the rise of the Tamil United Liberation Front in the 1970s, the pro-independence Vaddukodai resolution ofhe mid-70s, and the popularity of the Tamil National Alliance Party today. Even if we disregard the Tigers and other violent groups completely, it is still very clear that Tamil people have repeatedly supported organisations that call for either autonomy or complete independence.

The year 1983 is cruical to understanding why so many Tamils have embraced armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state. In July 1983 anti-Tamil riots broke out in the south of the country, and lasted for ten bloody days. Three thousand Tamils died in the mayhem, which was not condemned by the Sinhalese government of the time until it was almost over.

The riots of 'Black July' were followed by an act of parliament - an act which was debated for a mere day before it was rammed through by the Sinhala majority - that asked all MPs to swear an oath to a unitary Sri Lanka. Because they could not swear this oath, the Tamil nationalist MPs who constituted the official opposition in parliament were forced to give up their seats. Thus the peaceful representatives of the Tamil desire for independence were pushed out into the cold, and this along with the deadly riots encouraged many Tamil people to believe that armed struggle was the only way to express their grievances.

Imagine if anti-Scottish riots broke out in London, thousands of Scots living there were killed, and the British parliament reacted by demanding that Scottish National Party MPs in Westminister swear an oath that they would not try to break up the British state. Would an armed struggle not quickly arise in Scotland in these circumstances? And would some of the keyboard warriors who have visited this site and indymedia over the past few days begin to talk about a congential 'Scottish irrationality' and an unplacatable 'anti-English fanaticism'?

'Always good to get [and completely ignore] feedback'

Sent: Monday, 2 February 2009 3:15 p.m.
To: Simon Bradwell
Subject: TVNZ coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka

Dear Simon,

I am writing to you about the piece which aired on the six o'clock TVNZ news last Thursday about the conflict in Sri Lanka. I felt that the wording of your news item was lacking in the objectivity your organisation claims to want to bring to journalism.

Your item claimed that 'many' of the 70,000 people killed in the conflict in Sri Lanka over the past three decades died at the hands of the Tamil Tigers. 'Many' is a conveniently vague word - it may suggest 'some', or it may suggest 'most', or it may suggest 'half'. I think you ought to have been more precise.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of both civilian and military deaths during the current round of fighting are being caused by the Sri Lankan army, which is using firepower that the Tamil Tigers cannot hope to match. To refer to the fact that 'many' people have been killed by the Tigers over the course of the whole conflict during a report on the current violence is to give the false impression of recent events. Journalists have not failed to note the one-sidedness of the recent fighting in Gaza; should they not also note that the fighting in Sri Lanka has a similar quality?

Your news item stated that the Tamil Tigers are 'condemned around the world as terrorists'. This formulation does not specify which people or organisations consider the Tigers 'terrorist'. The fact is that, under pressure from the US government in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, many nations have placed the Tigers on lists of terrorist organisations. Individual governments did not necessarily 'condemn' the Tigers when they did this; normally they simply added the group's name to a list of names, without any internal discussion or public comment.

The Tigers do not necessarily have the characteristics of a terrorist organisation just because the US calls them terrorists. It is important to remember that governments often classify and reclassify groups as 'terrorist' and 'legitimate' depending on political exigencies. The African National Congress was considered a terrorist group by many Western governments; so, of course, was Sinn Fein. There are a number of important governments - the government of South Africa , for instance - which do not consider the Tigers terrorists, and there are large Tamil communities around the world which consider the Sri Lankan goverment, and not the Tigers, as a terrorist organisation.

By choosing to accept the US government's characterisation of the Tamils as 'terrorists' over the different characterisations employed by (say) the South African government and the Tamil diaspora, you are mixing up political commentary with news coverage and betraying your stated aim of covering events objectively. If you choose to acknowledge that some governments and people consider the Tamil Tigers terrorists, why not also acknowledge that others do not? Why the false suggestion of unanimity?

Perhaps, though, it would be better to avoid such a politicised label as 'terrorist' altogether, and try to use more objective and informative language when discussing the complex and tragic situation in Sri Lanka ?

Scott Hamilton

From: Simon Bradwell


Thanks for your email.

According to my research, 32 countries have labelled the Tamil Tigers a “terrorist” organisation. That justifies the line in the story.

It is impossible to specify how many of the 70,000 deaths are directly attributable to the Tigers. Hence the use of the word “many”.

I appreciate your time to email, but I’m entirely happy with the story, and its objectivity, and so is everyone at TVNZ that I’ve spoken to.

Best wishes


From: Scott Hamilton
Sent: Monday, 2 February 2009 3:49 p.m.
To: Simon Bradwell
Subject: RE: TVNZ coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka

Dear Simon,

you apply the same logic to the question of whether the Tigers are a terrorist group and the question of whether your news item was biased. Because a certain number of states say the Tigers are terrorists, you feel entitled to call them terrorists; because a certain number of your colleagues think your piece was unbiased, then it must be unbiased.

Surely questions of truth can't be resolved by poll? If they can, which poll should we choose? If thirty-two countries consider the Tigers terrorists, then around one hundred and fifty don't. Your colleagues may have thought your piece unbiased, but many other people - I've talked to some of them - considered it flawed.

Surely it is necessary to enquire as to whether a label is justified, before attaching it?


From: "Simon Bradwell"

Thanks again. I’ve said all I intend to about the story.

Thanks for your interest though, always good to get feedback.

Kind regards


It's time to support our Tamil friends

Over the past month Sri Lanka's army and air force have been attacking the northern part of Tamil Eelam, the homeland of the Tamils who live on the island of Ceylon. Sri Lankan tanks, artillery, and jets have turned a series of towns and villages into ruins. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, and a quarter of a million refugees have been driven into a piece of forest half the size of Great Barrier Island. Many of these refugees lack shelter and access to medicine, and United Nations High Commissioner Navi Pillay has called their situation 'seriously alarming'. Like the Palestinians of Gaza, the people of Tamil Eelam are the victims of a government which does not distinguish between military and civilian targets.

Skyler and and I took part in a march down Queen Street last Saturday in protest at the Sri Lankan government offensive. Apart from Green MP Keith Locke, we were the only non-Tamils present. We only knew about the event because a Tamil friend had texted us an hour or so before it began.

The three hundred or so members of the Tamil community who had turned out for the march at short notice were unused to staging public demonstrations, and didn't feel confident enough to walk down the street, or chant slogans. They moved in double file down the Queen Street footpath silently, holding aloft homemade placards with slogans like NEW ZEALAND SPEAK OUT and SELF-DETERMINATION FOR TAMILS written on them in felt pen.

These polite, modest people were repeatedly abused by passing motorists, who shouted witticisms like GO BACK HOME THEN YOU BLACK BASTARDS! and MUSLIM TERRORISTS! My partner and I had been invited to the march by Tamil friends, and after they introduced us we struck up a series of conversations. We heard about siblings who had been killed by Sri Lankan artillery bombardments, parents who had been obliterated by bombs dropped from above the clouds, and cousins who had vanished into 'refugee camps' surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by Sri Lankan soldiers. I listened to these stories, heard the abuse from passing motorists, and looked at the blank faces of shoppers ducking into Borders and Smith and Caugheys, and thought: how must we look to them? Most of us do not shout abuse, but is our studied obliviousness not in some way worse? Does it not look like a calculated insult?

It was interesting to compare last Saturday's demonstration with the march down Queen Street organised a couple of weeks ago to protest against the Israeli attack on Gaza. That demonstration numbered at least a thousand souls, of whom no more than a third were Arabs. Why is it, one of my Tamil interlocutors asked, that everyone cares about Gaza, but nobody takes any notice of our plight in Sri Lanka? I found it hard to answer him.

There are certainly compelling similarities between the situations of the Palestinians and the Tamils: both have found themselves under massive attack by right-wing governments which have seized upon Bush's rhetoric of a 'War on Terror' to make an impossible attempt to settle a long-standing ethnic dispute by military means. Both peoples are residents of open air prisons. Both peoples are being bombed and denied vital humanitarian aid. The UN has come under sustained attacked in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, as well as in Gaza.

The Tamils on last Saturday's demonstration were so amazed that my partner and I supported them that they asked one of us to speak. I said a few words, identifying myself as a member of New Zealand's trade union movement, talking about our movement's history of supporting progressive international causes like the anti-apartheid movement and the movement against war in Iraq, and suggesting that our movement ought to be a natural ally of the Tamil people in their struggle against war and oppression. I'm not sure how convincing I sounded.

I hope that many more non-Tamil Kiwis will come to Wednesday's demonstration (I believe the protest starts at 3pm with a march from Aotea Square starting at 5pm) to show these courageous people that their plight is not being ignored.