Frankenstorm versus Frankenstein

In case Sandy actually does destroy the entire North East of the USA, I might take this opportunity to reflect upon the significance of the neologism ‘Frankenstorm’, before such academic nit-picking comes to seem insensitive. Indeed, it might already be so, because this storm claimed 21 lives in the Caribbean before moving back out to sea. But this reflection seems particularly poignant given the storm’s coinciding with the final days of the presidential campaign.

The  nick name ‘Frankenstorm’ is not just a media buzzword, but a quirky name attributed to Sandy in the first instance by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sandy is the convergence of two tropical cyclones, and the product is the giant monster storm we are all calling ‘Frankenstorm’. The name, of course, references Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. But Frankenstein is not the monstrous hybrid creature in the book, rather Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein, is the creator. Andrew Revkin writing on the NYTimes blog has already picked up on this and noted that “While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster, it’s just not that simple.” Ok, so we can’t just solely attribute the huge cataclysm to human activity. That is fine. But the blog’s correct reading of the neologism belies the fact that the media has picked it up and is using it in various ways to refer not to the storm’s creators but to the storm itself or its stormy effects: “Nick-named ‘Frankenstorm’ for its potentially monstrous effect”, for example.

In the recent presidential debates in the US climate change was not mentioned once. This is the first time that climate change has not been mentioned in such a significant debate in the US since the early 1980s. There is therefore tragic irony in the fact that although climate change is decidedly off the mainstream political agenda in the USA, that everyone is referring to the storm that threatens to devastate some of the most populous regions of the nation by a name that by virtue of the neologism’s literary origins, implies it is, in some way, a creation of humankind.

Then of course there is the actual name of the storm, Sandy, which is another topic altogether.


My Crown of Weeds

A long time ago I promised to think more about the crown of weeds in King Lear. On October 12, 2012, more than two years since I made that promise, I was given that opportunity in public. I participated in the creation of a tradition at UNSW that involved the actual construction of a weedy crown. On this day Professor Deborah Bird Rose crowned me with weeds to celebrate the submission of my PhD*. Hopefully future students in the Environmental Humanities** will also be similarly crowned! The tradition was the collaborative brainchild of Drs Eben Kirksey, Thom van Dooren and Ms-not-quite-Dr myself and made with the assistance of Diego Bonetto, Sydney’s own King of Weeds. Eben suggested I make a costume to celebrate my submission, Thom was amicable to this idea, I came up with the idea of crowning myself with weeds and Diego helped me select the edible weeds.

On a frosty morning Diego, Carin (from Slow Food Sydney) and myself went walking along the Cooks River and Wolli Creek in search of rogue edible plants. Below are a series of photos that capture the creation of this foraged weedy crown.

My PhD is on the storm in King Lear and during his time in the storm Lear strips naked and then crowns himself with weeds. My favourite interpretation of this crown is from Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Adaptation Ran (Chaos).

Hidetora’s Crown of Weeds (Emperor Hidetora is the Lear of Kurosawa’s Film)

I wanted to make the crown because I like what it represents. It is usually considered an indicator of Lear’s madness or the chaos in the kingdom. But I think the weedy crown represents the promise of an alternative political order. Taken out of its dramatic context, I think a weedy crown can be worn by anyone (of the 99%!) to represent an alternative way of imaging and living in the world. For me this alternative world positions disorderly natural forces (such as weeds, parasites and storms) and the unwieldy patterns of life and death at the heart of a refigured body politic.

This post comes with two disclaimers.

*Firstly, I have not yet received the award of PhD, given all this attention I can only hope I pass!

**I am a student of English at UNSW, not Environmental Humanities but I have been teaching in the Environmental Humanities and it was lovely of them to help mark this occasion. When I do finally receive the award, however, it will be through the English department.

Nevertheless, I am incredibly honoured to have been crowned with weeds by Professor Bird Rose and I can only hope to live up to the ideals represented by this digestible and perishable diadem.


Queues

During the Howard Years the label ‘queue jumper’ was applied to anyone who tried to enter Australia via ‘unofficial’ means or ‘illegal’ passage. For the most part these people are refugees. So, anyone who fled their home and country for fear of prosecution, but who also failed to fill out the correct paperwork before arriving in Australia was labelled a ‘queue jumper’. Rather than just being an offensive gaffe by some loose lipped Barnaby Joyce-type politician,forgotten well before the next election, this phrase has entered common usage in the Australian vernacular; indeed it was a phrase key in winning Howard the next election. It is a tragic misnomer for a range of reasons but most tragically in relation to refugees: one cannot queue to flee. However the phrase stuck because it made sense to a shameless majority; it played into the imaginations of many Australians who, it turns out, are afraid that the wide brown land is too small to accommodate people in need.

********

I was in a queue the other day, but it was a queue of a very different order. I was queuing for coffee at a cafe in Chippendale. But at first I didn’t see the queue. A girl walked in, looked at me, and walked straight past me to a line that was trained along the counter. This line was obviously a queue. I noticed this almost immediately and joined the queue behind the girl who had walked in after me. ‘Is this the queue?’ I asked. ‘Yes it is’, she replied quite definitely. I wasn’t too disgruntled that she was in front of me in the queue, even though I’d been at the cafe for a few minutes longer than her (and she knew that!). But it did make me think a little bit about the mundane, interpersonal politics of queues and how this might relate to the concept of the ‘queue jumper’.

My basic point is, even if you can join a queue (i.e. because you aren’t ‘fleeing’ or because it’s a sunny and peaceful Friday morning and you can wait ten more seconds for a decaf flat white), you can’t join the queue until you know where it is. Then, when you do find the queue, no one actually cares how long you’ve been looking for the queue. When you do join it you have to get on the back of the line. That’s the rule. There can be no way to register when you decide to start looking for the queue, because if you knew how to register, you’d know how to find the queue. What struck me was that the girl could have offered to let me in the line, but she didn’t. She knew where the queue was, I didn’t. She’s gotta wait too. Why would she want to wait any longer?

It is here, in this mundane, more or less every day unspoken rule, we find the base and wretched political power of the phrase ‘queue jumper’. It doesn’t matter that many of the people labelled ‘queue jumpers’ don’t even know there is a queue (if we can even speak of the wait to immigrate to Australia as a ‘queue’, as such). Furthermore, anyone seeking refugee status would not be able to queue anyway: queuing to ‘flee’ imminent danger is impossible by definition. It doesn’t matter because while you’re average joe is waiting for his morning coffee, and reading the daily tele’s latest wretched story about ‘queue jumpers’, he’s linking the idea of the refugee to his coffee queue; he’s thinking about what he’d like to do to anyone who dared extend his wait time for his mug-o-cino and using that ‘basic instinct’ to interpret the plight of those displaced by political turmoil. It may too banal and too base but I feel like there’s something in it.

I’m looking forward to watching ‘Go Back to Where You Came From‘ on SBS tonight.


Cars

I have spent the day trying to construct a talk about my WALK project for The Right to the City Symposium this weekend. My project is entitled “walking in the rain” and is, as it says it is, a walk in the rain. The walk will happen rain, hail or shine along the Cooks River in Canterbury. I chose the site because of a range of reasons, but largely because the river is one enormous drain. Also I thought it would be interesting to think about rain in the city in relation to the infrastructure designed to drain it all away. I’ve been trying to think about my work in terms of the politics of storm water management, private property and urban planning. But it is really hard to construct a talk about a work that is not yet finished. So today I’ve been easily distracted from this task by Google Images, Flickr and YouTube. I was looking for engineered urban river systems, to help me think differently the particularities of the Cooks River system.

When thinking of urban waterways The Seine and the Thames of course came to mind, as did New York’s Hudson River. But as soon as I saw the picture I realised that the Los Angeles River is really the most extraordinarily stark example of a river that has been engineered in order to suit the water management needs of a modern industrialised city.

Los Angeles River

It is the epitome of ugliness and hasty, unsustainable urban planning. But it is also spectacular in its own way; for me the scale of the concrete system is almost sublime. It is a drain that is so big that it is iconic. But this is not what this post is actually about. This post is about cars. The Cars that Flooded Toowoomba.

In the process of looking for my urban riverscapes, I came across a video of the Toowoomba flash flood from earlier in the year. This footage was replayed over and over on TV at the time, probably under the headline ‘Inland Tsunami’, but I had never heard the original audio until today. The audio is a discussion between a group of colleagues, one holding the camera and the rest looking on in awe, while the flood waters rush into their work’s car park.

If you watched the video, did you notice that the discussion only refers to the flood waters a couple of times? Did you notice that for the majority of the clip entirely about the cars parked in the car park? This struck me as a telescoping of all media representation of disasters; ‘Nature’s’ fury doesn’t make sense to us unless pictured in relation with what ‘she’s’ furious with, in this case it’s the cars. Watching the footage of the Tsunami in Japan recently was the same for me; bridges crushing boats, suburbs of houses swirling around together like crumbs in a sink hole were the things that enabled me, with my limited human capacity, to begin to understand the scale of the non human wave.

While I think it is a banal, base and impulsive response, and (in the Toowoomba clip at least) it is also a funny response, it is nonetheless meaningful. If there was nothing meaningful in that relation between the natural event (wave, flood, storm) and the damage (houses, bridges, cars) what’s the difference between the footage of the Tsunami and images or footage of Niagara Falls? The ‘disaster’ is the relationship between the two. In fact, one scale for measuring the force of a tornado turns the basic human perspective into a kind of scientific method: the Fujita Scale measures the intensity of the cyclone by the amount of human infrastructure and vegetation it destroyed.  For me the video of the flood in Toowoomba is a wonderful example of this curious human reflex.

As someone trying to write a thesis about a storm, I actually long for the opposite to be true. My entire thesis tries to circumvent this basic impulse to account for the human and not the storm. I am in engaged in a struggle to account for the storm itself; but then most of my observations have to begin with the drama of human perspectives that plays out within it/beside it/below it. I wonder what would need to be different for the basic reflex to be the opposite? I wonder what it would take for most of us non-experts to be able to imagine the storm instead of the broken power lines, the bush fire instead of the roadblock, the wave instead of the devastated town and the flood waters instead of the cars (the rising sea-levels instead of the politics?).

*******

But how to link this impulse to focus on the cars in Toowoomba anyway to my day of thinking about urban storm water management? Here’s an idea. Our cities are built on the promise that we can manage the rain water. But, as French theorist Paul Virilio once stated that the invention of the train was also, in the same instance, the invention of the train wreck; by extension, the invention of the drain in some sense is also the invention of the flood.[1] When the drains fail, be it the drain in the bathroom or the network of drains in the state of Queensland, it is logical that we take note of the damage to the things that the drain was supposed to keep dry. And perhaps recognise the drain itself as a mediator of the relationship between the flood waters and the damaged property; the drain/riverdrain is the conduit of meaning. The drain in this sense is meaningful.[2] But meaningful how? I hope the meaning of the drain and its relevance to my my WALK project, to The Right to the City and to my talk on Saturday will emerge in a dream tonight. Sorry to leave this one hanging.

[1] all machines can be viewed in this way: plane/plane crash, ship/shipwreck, car/car crash. In fact perhaps it is just the industrialised version of Life/Death. Hmmm. That’s food for thought.

[2] It reminds me of this quote from the first episode of Treme “Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, but what happened in New Orleans was a man made catastrophe of epic fucking proportions”.


War Games

There is much to be said about Operation Odyssey Dawn, the US’s name for the UN sanctioned strikes against Libya. We could start with its decidedly impractical name: How about Operation Support Civilian Protesters? I guess it is likely that Odyssey Dawn is more honest, the first phase of yet another potentially long term military odyssey for the US and its allies. However, on the 8th anniversary of the Coalition of the Willing’s illegal invasion of Iraq, and just over 24 hours into the military action against Libya, I simply want to focus on this image I found on the Sydney Morning Herald website earlier this morning.

Taken from the Sydney Morning Herald Website 20th March, 2011

Just a few days ago, I was discussing with a friend how reprehensible the mainstream media’s coverage of “Shock and Awe” was. I recalled how even though the days preceding the invasion were overwhelmed by mass global debate and protest, as soon as the bombing began, the politics fell out of the mainstream press. By “politics” I mean the US’s  (and the rest of the Coalition’s) Defiance of the UN, the fabrication of the reason for going to war, the massive resistance to the invasion from the citizens of the US, UK, Australia to name a few, and the conflict of military and business interests that Iraq presented the billionaire’s club Bush administration. On the day of the invasion all of this politics was trumped by the spectacular fireworks display that was the invasion bombing of Baghdad. The “Shock and Awe” campaign was designed to send shockwaves through the Iraqi population in order to lubricate the regime change (and wholesale privatisation of the state) [1], but also the “Shock and Awe” was replicated for us to marvel at on TV, only at a much safer distance. It was like some spectacular war game, people I remember would go home after work to “watch the war”. We are right to be angry and cynical about the media representation of the early days of the Iraq war, it was explicitly designed to distract us from the politics. Indeed, that the way in which the mainstream media lapped up the idea of “Shock and Awe” in those early days is possibly the one success story of the invasion. But, the spectacularisation of the invasion of Iraq makes a perverse kind of sense given the objectives of the Coalition; shameful and criminal as it was and still is, Iraq was designed to be shamelessly dazzling. This is not the same in Libya.

In Libya we have a popular uprising violently repressed by a militant dictator, and a concerned international community ‘intervening’ to support the people; or so they say. It is in the meaningful difference between Iraq and Libya that caused my despair upon seeing these images. The series of images captures the destruction one of Gaddafi’s jets, shot down by allied forces enforcing the no fly zone in order to attempt to thwart Gaddafi’s violent backlash against his own people. It is not the destruction of the jet that disturbs me so, it is the captions–“going”, “going”, “gone”–as though the plane was the highest bidder at a high-stakes military auction. For me the captions are an example of a particularly problematic, patronising, post-Shock and Awe, western gaze.

The captions serve no practical purpose; we can tell that the plane is crashing, crashing, crashed without them. While they do not tell us anything about the image itself, they do add something to it. Even though I have no idea who actually created the captions and for what purpose, these captions are fundamentally political. They adopt a moral high ground and neutralise debate around the military action by tacitly assuming that the Allied forces are doing what is right and that whomsoever the soldiers were in that plane got what was coming to them for siding with the enemy. In fact, less than 24hours into this conflict, the captions suggest war itself is a kind of fun game that they are already confidently winning. There is a kind of excitement imbedded in the destruction of this enemy target. The captions, it could be argued, have the same dehumanised tone as the soldiers caught on the wikileaks Collateral Murder video. It seems to me that these images with such playful captions is more at home on some right-wing pro-war discussion board than on a mainstream news website. To me these captions are the journalistic equivalent of Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” speech, only it is perhaps even more pre-emptive. One plane shot down and, mission accomplished, Gaddafi is going, going, gone. Not quite. Not even close.

This war that is less than 24hours old so much is unknown, when and how Gaddafi will retaliate is unknown and the effects are yet to be determined, except for the stated goal of trying to get Gaddafi to stop attacking the civilian protesters other Western interests remain undeclared (Oil?), will the action actually assist anti-government protesters in the end, and how many civilians will die in this process. In spite of the fact that the allied forces successfully shot down one plane with one of the 110 missiles used in the first day of conflict, what will happen in Libya is unknown. At this stage we can only hope that the hubris displayed by our anonymous caption-editor is not the same as those planning the battle, or we might find that it is another Iraq or Afghanistan dawning in North Africa.

*****

[1] “Shock and Awe is often presented as merely a strategy of overwhelming firepower, but the authors of the doctrine see it as much more than that: it is, they claim, a sophisticated psychological blueprint aimed ‘directly at the public will of the adversary to resist’ … With clear echoes of the CIA’s interrogation manuals, ‘Shock and Awe’ states, “In crude terms, Rapid Dominance would seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events”

“Iraq … was the logical conclusion of Chicago School theory: a public sector reduced to a minimal number of employees, mostly contract workers, living in a Halliburton city state, tasked with signing corporate-friendly laws drafted by KPMG and handing out duffle bags of cash to Western contractors protected by mercenary soldiers, themselves shielded by full legal immunity. All around them were furious people, increasingly turning to religious fundamentalism because it is the only source of power in a hollowed out state. Like Russia’s gangsterism and Bush’s cronyism, contemporary Iraq is a creation of the fifty-year crusade to privatise the world.”

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, p.333 & 359

Post script: I spent today at two rallies unrelated to the Libyan conflict: Free Bradley Manning and No more Coal Mines/No Coal Seam Gas. Images here.


An Unoriginal Gripe

Sometime in the middle of the hottest night of the longest heatwave, in Sydney’s recorded meteorological history, I was sitting on a pontoon on Sydney harbour, in my underpants, talking about leaf blowers. The conversation had drifted from the phenomenon of the manicured lawn, to the lawn mower, then onto the leaf blower. Leaf blowers have, for a long time, symbolised to me everything that is wrong with the world today. For example, I have a page of this blog saved in drafts called “Despair”. The page is a work-in-progress list of the top things that make me lose faith in the world and everything in it. Leaf Blowers currently sits at number one.

When I mentioned this gripe, two of Sydney’s bright young professional science and environment writers, also in their underpants, rolled their eyes and said (to radically paraphrase), “everyone wants us to write about leaf blowers, it is such a cliche, we can’t see that there’s anything wrong with one or two leaf blowers, there are bigger fish to fry.” I argued my point briefly, which I will come to in a minute, and I was given the concession that perhaps if I was writing in an academic rather than journalistic context the problem could be framed in a more interesting way. Even so, the general feeling toward leaf blowers was a resounding “meh” or “bleargh”. But, this is beside the point, I didn’t need convincing that the issue/symbol of the Leaf Blower is interesting (it’s my number one gripe!). The point is, it was actually the first part of their criticism that really disturbed me. My Number One Gripe, the gripe that I thought contained within it the hitherto unexpressed problem with the world today, is actually entirely unoriginal and a tired old cliche?

Gripes are trivial complaints. I tend to feel despair in relation to many gripes, not because I empathise with the griper, but that the object of the gripe (the gripee?) is  actually capable of stirring enough negative emotion and energy in the griper to warrant a gripe in the first place–long queues at Woolworths, the cost of parking in the city, a faulty iphone 4, the slight struggle to comprehend the accented voice of the phone banking attendant in South East Asia, bad customer service at the Yacht Club–I tend to think most gripes warrant the hash-tag “first world problems”. That is why I was shaken up by the knowledge that every bleeding hearted greenie has a fundamental problem with leaf blowers, and that the gripe itself is actually a “gripe” rather than an “issue”, and is therefore really trite. Further, this gripe might not only warrant the hash tag “first world problems” but something even worse, #boring. So here, without doing any more research, without checking to see who in the world might also have expressed this opinion, without wasting one more second of my time on this hackneyed topic, I want to briefly defend my position on Leaf Blowers, but at the same time perhaps get it out of my system, retire this unoriginal gripe and focus on the bigger picture.

Leaf Blowers are a power tool that look like a cross between a chainsaw and a vacum cleaner. When in use, it is held about waste height so the large tube could considered by the user as a fantastically long and powerful, mechanical extension of the human penis. They are designed to blow leaves from one place to another: from path/park/yard to the drain, or, as is no doubt sometimes the case, designed to move stuff that I do not want on my property onto someone else’s. The practical function and fundamental purpose of the leaf blower is, therefore, a metaphor for the problems of property ownership. The person blowing the leaves from their property to their neighbours, or from Local Council jurisdiction to Crown Land, or if you happen to live on some geopolitical border, from one nation to another, it implies that you do not see a valuable connection between your land and someone elses. As long as your land is free from dead leaves and rain-soaked snail-eaten poorly-discarded junk mail, then you are OK. (There’s a metaphor for the refugee crisis in there too… but I won’t go into it now).

It is also a metaphor for, and literal embodiment of, “outsourcing” and all its adjunt political issues. In blowing my leaves from my front lawn to yours, I am effectively striking a deal with a developing nation to bury my toxic waste, or I am hiring a Human Resources firm to come in and get rid of “all the dead wood”, so to speak. If someone who has just been unreasonably fired by a large corporation not by their direct superior, but by some weirdo temp guy with a plastic smile and an unnaturally logical reason for ending the employment contract asks, “How come my termination notice smells like diesel and sounds like a two-bit engine?”, perhaps direct them to this post.

I also believe that leaf blowers are a literal embodiment of, and metaphor for, the resources crisis and climate change. The Leaf Blower, which itself requires petrol to power, expresses all the problems of hidden costs, supply chains, oil dependence and deregulated free-market capitalism and, therefore, Leaf Blowers could be understood as being responsible for the melting of the polar ice caps. The leaves that I could move from my yard to the compost or even to the green bin with my hands, requires an product delivered to me via an unregulated international supply chain and therefore the Leaf Blower helps to prop-up slave labour markets, an oil economy built on warfare, and, if you include purchase a sausage sandwich and can of coke at the Bunnings charity barbeque at the same time as you buy your underpriced garden machine, factory farming and the third world fresh-water crisis.

Not to mention the noise.

I also think that what needs some serious cultural analysis is the children’s toy version of the “humble” leaf blower. These toys are available via Amazon, and no doubt in a toy store near you. The method of production of the toy of course repeats the same problems as the product itself, plus one.

Kiddy Leaf Blower

Second wave feminists were good at pointing out the way in which children’s toys produce gender identities. Trucks and lego go with penises to make “Boys”. Dolls and kitchen sets go with vaginas to make “Girls”. I would like to add that  Kiddy Leaf Blowers can be matched with either penises or vaginas in order to make “Neoconservatives“.

If I wanted to, I could even go a step further and suggest that the Leaf Blower was the cause of the heatwave that prompted us to go an sit on a pontoon in Sydney harbour in the middle of the night in order to survive. But, I won’t. We were really on the pontoon for a friend’s birthday. And it was an enormously fun night out! So, I will leave it there. That’s my gripe. It’s unresearched. Superficial. Hyperbolic. It smacks of my status as a bleeding hearted greenie with an overly-generalised-knoweledge of the complex international system and a trumped up sense of self-righteousness. But, screw it. I like it. I’ve said it. It’s my unoriginal gripe. It is out of my system. I can move on. I hope you did not find this post too #boring.


Invasion Day

By 5pm it was 30 degrees in the shade. I’d already swapped the ocean for a Survival Day festival. A Survival Day festival for a cold bath and a book. And the cold bath and a book for a cold glass of water and a muesli bar. I was working myself up to putting on clothes. The house was peaceful. Newtown was peaceful. Because most people were getting pissed at the beach. I shared a beer with some friends at 6pm. And, by 8pm I was at the Opera House watching the Gob Squad’s amazing Super Night Shot. By 10.30pm I’d stacked it on my bike and ripped all the skin from the underside of my left knee. By 11.30pm I was asleep. That was my January 26 in a nut shell. It is always strange day because it is still a celebration of the colonisation of Australia by the British.

The night before, I marked Invasion Day by going to Film Fanatics at Petersham Bowling Club. And, under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, we watched Australia Daze (1988), One People Sing Freedom (1988) and Babakiueria (1986). All three films were great in their own way. One People Sing Freedom was a short doco about Indigenous Australians who travelled to Sydney to take part in the Survival Day Protest on 26th January, 1988. Babakiueria, a film that has dated somewhat, is a mockumentary that inverts the traditional narrative of colonisation, putting white’s in black shoes. However, it is Australia Daze that I want to make comment upon here.

The idea for the doco was born in January 1987 in a pub in King’s Cross. Film maker Pat Fiske, and a man who would end up as Assistant Producer, Denis O’Rourke, were drinking beer and concocting a plan to make a film about Australia’s bicentenary celebrations. 1 year later, with the ABC as backers and $450K support, 29 film crews converged on cities and towns all over the country to film the day where Australia celebrated 200 years of white settlement. People from Sydney, Hobart, Mt Isa, and Canberra, and a selection of television footage from commercial stations that covered the celebrations feature in this extraordinary, underrated and undercirculated doco that shows a nation divided by its own historical narrative.

26 January, 1988. I was dressed as a green fairy on a Opera-House shaped parade-float, riding through the streets of Wollongong, waving to onlookers. My biggest problem on that day, as a five year old, was that I didn’t get to wear the pink fairy dress and instead was relegated to the (clearly inferior) lime green. Meanwhile in Sydney, millions of dollars of public money was spent on a dramatised re-enactment of the first fleet landing in Sydney harbour: hundreds of thousands of people came out to celebrate the event and glorify the 200 years of colonial history. But also, thousands of indigenous Australians converged on Lady Macquarie’s Chair, overlooking Sydney Harbour, to protest what the day represents and in particular the way in which it was being celebrated in 1988, and also to demand recognition for what colonisation meant and means for Indigenous people, their land and culture, past, present and future.

While the doco represents a substantial chunk of the spectrum of Australian identities, including the focus on European migrants, working class suburbanites, rural horse wranglers, the divided historical narrative between Black and White is at the heart of Australia Daze. And the film represents this divide by letting the subjects explain to camera what the day means to them. The divide comes out between the carefree attitude of wealthy white Australians who speak of the pride they feel on the day, and the resistance put up by Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters alike who lament the lack of recognition for what the day really represents.

I spent yesterday with the film at the forefront of my mind. 22 years later and, really, little has changed. With the Northern Territory intervention continuing in spite of a national apology, with the Block in disrepair, and with the millions of people cramming onto the beach with Australian Flag temporary tattoos plastered on their face, this particular divide is still as marked as ever. I do not have anything new to add to this discussion. I guess I just wanted to note it here, for whatever minimal posterity this blog enables, and also in a belated gesture of solidarity with the protesters back in 1988. White Australia has a Black History. That history needs to be widely represented and widely understood, and more needs to be done politically to change legacy in a material sense for indigenous people living today, and all that complexity needs to be visible when we stop work to think symbolically about our Imagined Community and what it means to share this Great Southern Land.

Also, I think it might be good if ABC screened Australia Daze every year on Invasion Day.

RESOURCES:

Australia Daze http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/australia-daze/

One People Sing Freedomhttp://aso.gov.au/titles/tv/one-people-sing-freedom/

Babakiueriahttp://aso.gov.au/titles/shorts/babakiueria/

Film Fanatics: http://thepbc.org.au/happenings/inner-west-film-forum

Yabun Festival: http://www.gadigal.org.au/arts/arts.aspx?id=14

 

Before the madness by 10am the sun still hadn't burned through the morning mist over the water

 

"White Australia has a Black History": small banners like this one were visible around the city throughout the day. This one was up the street from the Yabun festival.

 

 

 

 


“Blesséd are the people who loot”

Every natural disaster is followed by mass moral outrage directed toward the “looters”. In the context of a natural disaster, looters are imagined like guerilla militia lying in wait in the road-side shrubbery ready to nab a hostage. Looters are similarly characterised as lying in wait for the once-in-a-generation-natural-disaster and pounce as soon as the damage is done, grabbing anything they can, while they can, as if they are part of Nature’s fury, as if they are hell-bent on making the disaster even worse for those states, towns, businesses and individuals affected. In the current Queensland floods, the Ipswitch Mayor said that if he finds anyone looting they will “be used as flood markers” [1], which I think “jokingly” suggests they should be tied up and, essentially, drowned for looting. While another councillor, referred looters the “scum of the earth”[2]. By means of unconscious absorption of mainstream opinion, I too had always tacitly lumped looters in with murderers, rapists and pedophiles as the lowly scum of the earth.[3] That is, until I listened to a This American Life podcast about Hurricane Katrina, in which a woman described how looters effectively saved her life by stealing water and food for her and her trapped friends and family: “blesséd are the people who loot” she exclaimed when recounting how she was sheltering under an expressway after being shot at by police and a random “looter” came by with a van full of food and water for the group [4]. So, with the Queensland Floods destroying town after town, the papers and news sites are once more filling up with moral outrage directed toward the looters, I felt it appropriate to revisit my thoughts on the enigmatic category of social-misfits at this particular juncture.

Looters are, by definition, thieves. But the noun, “looter”, and the verb, “loot”, are words most commonly used to describe the thief and the act of theft during a State of Emergency; be it a war, riot or natural disaster. This is where the idea of a looter becomes both problematic and interesting. The notion of theft is necessarily linked to the notion of property, be it state property or private property. But during a State of Emergency, depending of course on the laws of the particular (nation) state, the state itself often has enhanced power to legally take possession or control of private property. A state of emergency destabilises the idea of private property to begin with and by extension changes how we need to think about theft. For instance, you often hear of people not being allowed to return to “their” homes after a disaster. There is the practical reason for this, i.e. it is inaccessable due to water or fire. But there may also be a legal reason for this, that is that a military, on government order, may have taken possession of the property in the State of Emergency, in order to minimise the danger for everyone and manage the clean-up of the disaster. I am no legal-eagle on this issue, and no doubt there are people who would be able to challenge or tweak my analysis here, but the basic point is that the concept of property as rightfully belonging or in possession of an individual is destabilised, if not entirely destroyed, first by the natural disaster and then again by the declaration of the State of Emergency. So the notion of “looting” that we seem to have, in which morally depraved petty thugs swoop in stealing particular individuals’ property is misguided.[5]

While writing this blog post I came across an article by Stuart Green from Rutger’s Law School entitled “Looting, Law and Lawlessness”. In which he thinks about the idea of looting post-Katrina [6]. He found two images, one of a black man and one of a while couple. Both of whom were wading waste-deep in flood water carrying what appeared to be food and water supplies. The caption on the photograph of the black man says “a young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store” and the image of the white couple says “two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store”[7]. While Green points out that the basic problem with these captions is the racial profiling that goes into the editorial assumptions, and the odd grammar of the second caption suggests that somewhere along the line the word “looting” may have been replaced by “finding”, the problem he finds is the “moral indeterminacy that underlies the act of looting itself” is not properly understood [8]. I won’t go further into Green’s article here, because it veers me away from the sole purpose of this blog post which was simply to say, that looters aren’t all bad, or at the very least looters aren’t necessarily bad. But if you are interested in this issue, Green’s article is worth a look.

I want to conclude with another current example, one of the men arrested in Ipswitch. A man was caught stealing a small dinghy; and charged with looting [9]. Now, while we might imagine that the man is strategically thinking ahead for a life after the flood, and once the town has been rebuilt, where he and his mates can grab a case of XXXX beer and go for a bit of a sunset cruise on the Bremer River. Alternatively the man needed a dinghy because the entire town is flooded, he wanted to help rescue others, he wanted to rescue his cat. Who knows? What I do know is that for a councillor and a mayor to, before a trial, suggest that they are the “scum of the earth” and should be used as “flood markers” almost certainly misses the point, and suggest something sinister about the nature of political and military power that is often exposed during situations of crisis.

To donate to the Queensland flood appeal go to: http://www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate.html

[1] http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/environment/weather/three-charged-over-looting-20110112-19nvv.html

[2] http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/environment/weather/three-charged-over-looting-20110112-19nvv.html

[3] I also wanted to add that I don’t really believe in the idea of “lowly scum of the earth” in any case, for murderers, rapists or pedophiles. While this may be evident from the context I wanted to add this addendum nonetheless. As reprehensible as some acts of violence and abuse are, the moral profiling and individual pathologisation of criminals, any criminals, is problematic to say the least, and terms such as “lowly scum of the earth” only serve to re-enforce a problematic notion of crime and criminality.

[4] The entire podcast can be streamed for free here – http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/296/after-the-flood

[5] Wiki is a good place to start, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_of_emergency and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Looting. Also, Giorgio Agamben’s book State of Exception (2005) theorises the idea of the State of Emergency.

[6] Green, Stuart P., Looting, Law, and Lawlessness. Tulane Law Review, Vol. 81, Hurricane Katrina Symposium Issue, 2007. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=917440

[7] Ibid., p.1

[8] Ibid., p.2

[9] http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/environment/weather/three-charged-over-looting-20110112-19nvv.html


A Storm By Any Other Name

“A Storm by Any Other Name”was originally published in The Reader: Volume 2, edited by Aden Rolfe. For more information go to The Emerging Writers’ Festival website, to purchase go to SPUNC. This is my first attempt at creative writing and is based on PhD research on storms; I sincerely thank the gang at The Emerging Writers’ Fest for supporting my work and new writing generally.

 

A storm has no clear beginning, middle or end. It resists narrative, simply emerging out of the earth’s atmosphere, then receding back into it. And when this happens, its elements don’t vanish so much as disperse: the atmosphere always retains the potential for clouds, wind, rain, thunder and lightning. And when all these elements occur in a particular arrangement, in a specific space and time, it is known as a storm. But a storm also exists in language. The name storm turns this arbitrary confluence into a clearly definable object, into a noun meaning ‘a disturbance of the atmosphere’. Due to the intensity of what it’s come to represent, however, this literal definition seems to slip away at the very moment you think you have it pinned down.

When a storm is big enough to pose a threat to humans and to human infrastructure, it is no longer known only as a storm, but given a human name. It’s a privilege usually reserved for people, places and organisations, and the storm is unique among meteorological phenomena to receive this honour. The tradition does have its practical uses, though: it makes a storm easier to identify, refer to, talk about and write about. While in some respects having a simple word like Tracy to name a cyclone simplifies the idea of the storm, this language game also complicates what we can imagine this grand atmospheric event to be. The proper name turns these complex elemental forces into a sort of cosmological character, like Zeus or Jove. Or Tracy.

A name objectifies and reifies a storm, transubstantiates its gases and liquids into a solid thing, something tangible. The thunder, lightning, wind and rain become Tracy: a single, five-letter, two-syllable word. But in the same instance, a human name also subjectifies the storm: what would have been a multiplicity of faceless elements becomes person-esque. The anthropomorphisation endows the storm with all the complexities of the person, giving it agency and subjectivity, and the ability to acquire emotions. A storm can then express wrath and terror, and can even exact revenge. The storm’s activity is understood as part of Tracy’s personality and the havoc caused by the storm is forevermore linked with the name. The storm’s rage becomes Tracy’s rage. The practical reasons for naming the storm dissolve in an unstable ontological status. Tropical Cyclone Tracy is now both subject and object, and arguably more difficult comprehend. The eye of the storm refuses to be meaningful.

If the naming of the storm makes the storm more difficult to write about, the problem perhaps lies between the name and what it’s intended to represent. The best way to understand this is to think about the word Tracy as a sign. Such a sign, for someone like Ferdinand de Saussure, is a relationship between a signifier (the word) and the signified (the concepts this word represents). In this example, Tracy is the signifier, and the universe, the sun, the earth, gravity, the earth’s axis, the magnetic poles, oxygen, nitrogen, argon, increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, water vapour, relative humidity, air pressure, air temperature, ocean temperature, landscape, clouds, rain, wind, thunder, lightning, order, chaos, Australia, the Northern Territory, Darwin, Charles Darwin, World War II, bombs, flying debris, flying livestock, flying cars, flying foxes, flying saucers, satellite photographs, journalistic photographs, film footage of palm trees blowing in gale-force winds taken from inside a car with windscreen wipers on, terrified children, corpses, the past, the present, the future, the location where the storm made landfall and its relation to the rest of the world… these are the signified. Tracy is all this in a five-letter, two-syllable word. Roland Barthes once wrote that the weather is the phenomenon that ‘unites place, décor, light and temperature’. Our practice of properly naming storms helps unite things even further. Tracy consolidates Australia and the equator, humidity and thunder, airborne cattle and The Origin of Species.

If storms are given human names because they pose a threat to us, then we can’t understand Tracy without reference to the damage she subsequently wreaked. Which was, in short, the destruction of Darwin. Capital of the Northern Territory, and named, of course, after Charles Darwin, Darwin was and is Australia’s most geographically insecure city. This is solely due to its proximity to the rest of the world. Such vulnerability was felt during World War II, when it was the only Australian city bombed during the conflict. I might add, however, that my Dad would always remind me how perilously close the Japanese submarines came to Sydney. The threat of war was taken so seriously in Wollongong, just south of Sydney where I grew up, that a concrete bomb shelter was built during the late 1930s at the end of the street. My dad told me that if the Japanese did start a successful bombing campaign on the east coast during WWII, they would have bombed the local steelworks for sure. ‘For sure,’ he said again. We lived about a kilometre from the steelworks. I was convinced that if the steelworks were to be bombed, our house would be bombed, too. And so during the first Gulf War, when I was nine, I used to have nightmares about planes bombing the steelworks. Shouldn’t we black out the windows now, like Nanna did during World War II? and Do you think Mr Kennedy will let us use the bomb shelter if there is an attack? were some of the questions I repeatedly asked my Dad at the time. Anyway, the bombing of Darwin made Tracy’s devastation of the city seem particularly malicious. Since 1788, foreign forces had invaded no other Australian city in such a way until the Japanese bombed Darwin in WWII. This meant that come 1974, Tracy’s frenzy compounded insult with injury. Why would this foreigner come at Christmas and impose herself on the town? What harlot, hussy, vamp, slapper, skank, homewrecker would do such a thing? Tracy’s merciless execution of this meteorological injustice inspired the Hoodoo Gurus to write a song called Tojo (aka ‘Tojo Never Made it to Darwin’), in reference to Hideki Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister during World War II. The Gurus used the song as a retrospective appeal to Tracy, begging her not to take possession of the town and destroy everyone’s Christmas. In it, the personified Tracy notes that although Tojo ordered the bombing of Darwin, he never occupied the territory. The song goes, ‘Tracy was angry… and I said “Tracy, won’t you listen? This is Christmas!”’ And then Tracy sings back, ‘David, believe me, I wouldn’t miss this for the world, I’ve got to blow, I’ve got to blow’. Tracy was a pitiless storm. Not even the Hoodoo Gurus could convince her to be otherwise.

Although the naming of the storm seems to contribute some confusion as to what the storm actually is, it is only in this personified state that we come to understand Cyclone Tracy’s agency, and what she was capable of achieving. We gave Tracy a name because we knew her to be capable of great things. Tracy is really just like Tracy Grimshaw who displays greatness as a reporter on television, or Tracy Chapman who displays greatness in writing songs about melancholy girl-on-girl love and heartbreak, or Spencer Bonaventure Tracy who displayed greatness when he accepted his Academy Award for Best Actor in 1937 for the film Captain Courageous, or Dick Tracy, who is fictional but nevertheless displays greatness when he uses special gadgets to beat bad guys, or Miss Tracy who displayed greatness when she taught me jazz ballet in 1991, or Tracy Cohelo with the curly fringe and large pencil case from 5 Blue who displayed greatness when she called me a suck-up in 1993. I was a bit of a suck-up back then, it’s true. And the Bureau of Meteorology gave this anonymous cyclone a name so that we could easily recognise her as an agent of destruction, capable of great things.

This said, what Tracy actually achieved is unclear. According to the Bureau, she killed 65 people and, they argue, ‘profoundly affected the Australian perspective to the tropical cyclone threat’. That is a solid achievement, to be sure. And in all this she was still statistically what they call a small storm, with a radius of only 50km. But she had strong winds, with gusts of 217km/ph recorded at Darwin Airport. An 88-page report on the Bureau’s website details the specifics of her constitution, and tells us that the eye of the storm passed directly over Darwin. This is unique. Most storms require obsessive storm-chasers to follow them with laptops in Special Utility Vehicles to gather accurate information on the elusive eye, while Tracy provided meteorologists the rare opportunity to measure accurately and objectively its precise nature. A chance to record data, to be then translated into language to talk about, analyse, communicate and understand Cyclone Tracy. And possibly understand other storms, and their behaviour, and prepare ourselves for their inevitable impact and destruction. But as Tracy passed over Darwin, she destroyed most of the equipment. The data gathered on Tracy is, and remains, inconclusive.

 

Tracy's Damage



secrets, open secrets & wikileaks

I have just spent an inordinate amount of time trying to formulate a response to my cousin’s thoughts about Wikileaks on her blog. For a time I was trying to integrate Eve Sedgwick’s thoughts on ignorance, secrets and silences cogently into my opinion/rant, but I could not achieve it. So, I will post my specific thoughts about Sedgwick here.

The quote below comes from the first few pages of “Axiomatic” which is the introduction to her groundbreaking book Epistemology of the Closet. When I first read this book a few years ago the following quotation blew my mind for two reasons. Firstly, it is such a simple idea with such profound and complex implications. Second, it’s so stylishly articulated. Here it is:

“If ignorance is not—as it evidently is not—a single Manichaean, aboriginal maw of darkness from which the heroics of human cognition can occasionally wrestle facts, insights, freedoms, progress, perhaps then there exists a plethora of ignorances, and we may begin to ask questions about the labor, erotics, and economics of their human production and distrubution. Insofar as ignorance is ignorance of a knowledge—a knowledge that may itself, it goes without saying, be seen as either true or false under some or other regime of truth—these ignorances, far from being pieces of the originary dark, are produced by and correspond to particular knowledges and circulate as part of particular regimes of truth. We should not assume that their doubletting with knowledges means, however, that they obey identical laws or follow the same circulatory paths at the same pace.”

The point she makes here is complex. But essentially the observation is that far from being a binary opposition, ignorances/knowledges are networked into a complex relation with one another. What you know about something and what I don’t know about it are not necessarily co-extensive, and together they do not make up all knowing. There are asymmetries, gaps, potholes, pitfalls, strange eddies as well as symmetries, affinities, resonances between my knowledge and yours, and all other kinds of knowledges. The really important thing is what you are trying to know, or, as is often the case in a political sphere, what you truth you are trying to tell and what you are trying to do with the truth you are trying to tell.

Enter Wikileaks.

It strikes me that Sedgwick’s thoughts about ignorance and knowledge, their overlap, their intermingling are particularly pertinent when thinking about Wikileaks. Firstly, it is no secret that Assange is against secrets. My cousin drew attention to the fact that that the “end of secrets” is a problematic concept: “openness (contrary Julian Assange’s beliefs) is also not a virtue in and of itself.” But the intriguing thing that everyone keeps talking about is that a lot of what is in the cables is not exactly secret to begin with: those in the know already knew about the cables, and those who didn’t either don’t care or suspected a lot of what they include. Thus, even some of the super classified cables are not, in themselves, real secrets. They are instead “open secrets”. Thus we are not dealing with the “end of secrets” per se, rather with a challenge to the open secret structure of the global balance of power. Wikileaks is outting, for example, corruption in governements we already thought were corrupt.

My interest in this particular technicality has been sparked by the all-too-common position that what is in the cables themselves is not especially scandalous, secretive or ground breaking, and therefore it does not matter. This is a cynical position that I believe is actually a tragic misrecognition of the situation at hand. Earlier in the year wikileaks revealed a video of U.S. soldiers wilfully gunning down civilians, lots of people saw it it had no great effect on the global stage. Where as the revelations of these “open secrets” is causing governments to spin on their heads. Thus the banality of the cables is actually key to the situation.

What is an “open secret”? Of course, in simple terms it is a secret that everyone already knows. But what is it about the open secret that is interesting? Later in the same book Sedgwick quotes D.A. Miller on the secret and the open secret: secrecy can function as “the subjective practice in which the oppositions of private/public, inside/outside, subject/object are established, and the sanctity of their first term kept inviolate. And the phenomenon of the ‘open secret’ does not, as one might think, bring about the collapse of those binarisms and their ideological effects, but rather attests to their fantasmatic recovery.” [2]  That is, the open secret structure in fact permits the perpetuation of a particular regime, or perpetuation way of being, acting, doing. For instance, “the don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the U.S. Military is a classic case of trying turn the the open secret into policy in order to maintain the same discriminatory legal structure within the organisation.

Thus it is when an open secret is “outted” or confirmed that we see the real issues manifest. I am now hovering at the edge of the real complexity here. That is, the question of what the articulation of the government’s open secrets will actually do on the world stage. That is a pretty serious question. One that I will not begin to try speculate upon. But, I just want to conclude by saying that it is not unbelievable that it is now that U.S. Senators are looking for ways to tack caveats on the first amendment, or re-write law in order to retrospectively prosecute individuals for actions they freely undertook yesterday, or that public figures are calling for the assassination of a Assange. This is because of the fact that it is not the knowledge or ignorance or the content of the cables that is at stake, but rather how that knowledge and ignorance is entangled in the hierarchical structures of power, and for what purposes it is entangled. The cables show us how those secrets are networked, and to what ends, and I think that has something to do with why it is now that wikileaks is perceived as a real threat. It shows up and will continue to show up the gap between what the government says it is doing and what it actually is doing.

[1] Kosofsky, Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1990 p.6

[2] Miller, D.A. “Secret Subjects, Open Secrets” from The Novel and the Police, quoted in Ibid., p.67


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