A “wonk” is a general and derogatory term for a nerd who takes meticulous interest in details of a particular field of knowledge. But it is usually reserved for people who are obsessively interested in the finer details of political policy. Lots of people in Canberra are “policy wonks”, for example. Although I have never been entrenched for long enough in a particular part of society to become fully wonkified, rest assured I am licensed to write about wonks because some of my best friends are wonks. And, let me tell you, although I love them to bits I wouldn’t invite all of my wonky friends to the same dinner party, nor would I design a panel discussion made entirely of real-deal wonks and wannabe wonks with a surrogate wonk as the moderator.
Last night I attended the City of Sydney’s City Conversations talk at Town Hall entitled “The Big Decision: How to fix Sydney’s Transport“, which was an incredibly important and energetic discussion designed in response to Infrastructure NSW’s completely ridiculous plan to “solve” the issue of traffic congestion with more roads. The discussion, while interesting was thoroughly hijacked by a panel of progressive wonks. But I will reflect upon the topic of the discussion first, before revealing precisely why the wonkish tone of the evening was a problem.
While in 2005 Seoul peeled back a highway to reveal the river buried beneath and that in 1995 Shanghai built a multi-billion dollar high speed metro system that by 2011 carried over 2 billion travellers annually, in 2012 InfrastructureNSW and the O’Farrell Government are planning a mid-twentieth century style concrete and carbon monoxide dreamworld of new motorways and bus tunnels. Firstly, the centrepiece of the State Government’s vision is “West Connex”. According to the PR video, West Connex “the highest priority project for NSW”. It is 33kms of motorway that allow motorists to avoid 50 sets of traffic lights. Tellingly, the video does not once claim that West Connex will ease congestion, but instead (and rather hilariously) they claim that it “will transform Sydney’s traffic congestion”. They remain unspecific as to what they mean by “transform”, thus there is the potential that the plan could be read as blue print for transforming congestion by creating new traffic jams on different roads. Secondly, there is the CBD Bus Tunnel, the “CBD BRT” will, according to their website, “provide an alternative to light rail along George Street: a Bus Rapid Transit (‘CBD BRT’) tunnel from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the Town Hall area, modelled on the underground busway that already operates in Brisbane.” It should be mentioned that the “CBD BRT” involves the partial pedestrianisation of George Street as well. But, in contrast the City wants to pedestrianise George Street and extend light rail network. For the moment, the City’s plan seems to be on the shelf, and in the next couple of weeks the Government will be deciding whether to move their own large-scale and insanely expensive infrastructure projects beyond the planning stages and into action.
The City Conversation’s talk provided a place for a public discussion and a collective response to this proposal. The City’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, alerted people to the fact that decisions are about to be made on these big plans and motivated them to state their opinions now. So, spurred by the discussion last night, let me lay my cards out on the table. In case you haven’t yet realised, I am a cyclist. I have been for about seven years. I lived in the inner west most of this time, and have recently moved out to Earlwood, adding about 5kms to my daily commute. I now commute from Earlwood to the CBD or the Eastern suburbs on most days. This is between a 10 and 15km commute one-way on a combination of bike paths, quite streets and main roads. It is a great ride with the exception of my unavoidable encounters with main roads that do not support cyclists at all, like Unwin’s Bridge Road in Tempe, Anzac Parade in Kensington and Elizabeth Street in the CBD. I have previously recorded my opinion on cyclists’ place in the transport debate in New Matilda in a piece co-authored with Craig Johnson. Basically I believe more people should be cycling and I am very pleased that more people are cycling each year. The benefits of cycling are manifold from public health (cyclists tend to be fitter and healthier) and the environment (no gasoline necessary), to the budget (the latter itself is manifold because the health-benefits mean cyclists lighten the load on the health system and bikes do not require as much infrastructure and also do not cause as much damage to roads and paths so thus do not need to be maintained as much). But getting everyone to submit to my dream of a car-free, bicycle and razor scooter utopia is unfortunately not a viable solution in sprawling greater Sydney. Indeed, there is something unique and masochistic about cycling in a culture where everyone is coasting around in cars,* so I am a firm believer in a “transport mix” that is “heavy” on mass public transit and “light” on more roads. While building a bus tunnel may “free up local roads” for drivers and therefore ease congestion, mass-transit would have the same effect for the roads and be more environmentally sustainable long-term. This was also the main argument against the O’Farrell vision proposed by those on the panel at Town Hall last night, except they emphasised this as “economic” rather than “environmental” sustainability.
Although I agreed with panel’s economic argument against the State Government’s plan to “transform congestion”, the problem with the discussion last night was that it was almost 100% about economics and which proposed transport solution produced a healthier bottom line. Transport is more than just about getting from A to B; it is at the heart of how we conduct our daily lives and live in the world. For a progressive discussion on this issue to be entirely hijacked by economic modelling forgets what really matters. Which is unfortunately what often happens when progressive policy wonks allow a neo-liberal government to set the terms of the argument.** When pressed to comment on the bigger picture the panellists referenced trends away from cars and towards mass transit in other nations from the US and the UK to Asia and India, but gone was any discussion of the possibility of modes different of inhabiting and moving around the city, and lost was all discussion of the even bigger picture: climate. Although environmental sustainability is something that the City of Sydney clearly wants to address and although their proposal for a light rail system was both economically and environmentally sustainable, the environment was not mentioned last night. Instead questions like “How many hundred-thousand ‘wallets’ would ‘disappear’ underground if O’Farrell’s vision were to get the green light?”, “Wouldn’t it be better if those wallets were on the light-rail above ground” and “What impact would the construction of the bus tunnel have upon local retailers?”
I “live tweeted” at this event and called for the environment to at least be mentioned in the discussion. Nothing. It was like the recent presidential debates in the US, except no one was championing drilling for oil or gas, rather they were supporting public transit, walking and cycling. Despite the somewhat radical vision of the City, the rhetoric of the status quo reigned supreme. Part of me thought: “Maybe it is just too obvious an issue to rate mention”, but ultimately and tragically I think that the reason climate did not come up was far more cynical. When the host of the night, the ABC’s Quentin Dempster, introduced the evening by sarcastically stating he was going to set aside his cynicism, I should have realised what we were in for. The conversation was dominated by a bunch of relitavely progressive policy wonks, armed to the teeth with various statistics about the economic benefits of the City’s plan but they failed mention the elephant in the room! In other words, so successfully has the right come to dominate this transport debate in NSW that a progressive panel did not mention climate change. But climate should be at the centre of every debate about urban infrastructure as all decisions made without taking climate into account will be made redundant soon by the climate itself. Furthermore, trying argue for environmentally sustainable transport solutions whilst submitting to the terms of a neo-liberal Government’s policy framework is like trying to solve the problem of the melting ice-caps by building a giant freezer. It is the absolute wrong way to go about it.
Naomi Klein is the most articulate mainstream voice on the need for progressives to embrace a different kind of economic model. I agree with her argument that we need a new economic model to tackle climate change, because a more sustainable vision for future society needs industry regulation, collectivity and government intervention: all the things that neo-liberals loathe. Although Moore and her team at Town Hall also recognise the interconnections between the environment and the economy, those links were conspicuously absent from the discussion last night. The problem here as I see it is that if progressives erase climate change from big public discussions on issues as central to the environment as urban planning and transport infrastructure, what hope do we have? Indeed, progressive policy wonks need to unashamedly make climate change the centrepiece of their policy proposals at every opportunity and in the wonkiest of wonky ways. At the absolutely least a single voice from outside Wonka World should have been seated on the panel to keep climate and the environment alive as an issue when it comes to key discussions of massive infrastructure planning. Last night, with no non-wonky voice to remind them of the earth and climate and the ever-warming planet, these wonks were at the mercy of the O’Farrell governments neo-liberal facts and figures game, and they all seemed either too ashamed or too indoctrinated to think and talk about the issue of transport planning in anything other than economic terms. So, I am going to write to O’Farrell now and tell him that the State’s solution to Sydney’s transport problem is both environmentally and economically unsustainable.
*This is an idea to be explored at another time.
**N.B. Justin “Nightclub Baron” Hemmes was on the panel, I am not touting him as a progressive policy wonk, but he didn’t really contribute much to the discussion except to say that he thinks cars should be allowed back in after dark.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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”.
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.
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.
“God had thundered vengeance from on high … A God full of revenging wrath, / From whom the thunder and the lightning breaks”
Tamburlaine, Christopher Marlowe, (Lns 2923 … 4294-95)
“We are all in this together. When one part of Queensland hurts, every part of Queensland hurts.”
Anna Bligh, Televised Press Conference, February 2, 2011
It’s perverse, maybe insane, but I get really excited by massive storms.* The excitement starts when I hear a change in the rhythms of speech in the voices of people on TV. I love the shift in people’s way of thinking and talking about themselves and the world when a storm presents itself as a threat; everyone is suddenly a rhetorician, consciously describing their mind and body, as well as their place in the community and the world. Everyone is suddenly not only aware of their indelibly material presence at this point in History, but is willing to make extensive comment upon it. Everyone is keen to acknowledge their dependence on infrastructure and community and each other. Oceanography, geography, meteorology and climate are suddenly at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The fundamental instability of human life, social arrangement and development is suddenly universally acknowledged by everyone and the inferiority of the human-made world in relation to the non-human is front page news. Our individuality, our desire to survive and not to be hurt, is suddenly bound in really particular and definite ways with our shared experience and our desire to all live here together in safety; all our eyes are collectively fixed on Yasi, but what is of utmost importance is Yasi’s relation to me and also my loved ones and my community and my state and my nation and the rock and dirt of the continent and its geopolitical relation to the rest of world.
In a society with the luxury of modern weather prediction technologies, the capacity to predict a storm in advance also shows up the actual impossibility of really knowing anything in advance: what will the real effects of such a storm actually be? In the space between knowing and not knowing is panic. The panic that manifests seems to clearly contain both fear and excitement, the mass evacuations and clogged roads mean that school and work is cancelled, the empty shelves in supermarkets might mean someone might get ice cream for dinner, all this combined with the flood of journalistic attention: it’s like a holiday and a carnival, except of course it is not. It is impetuous, a system entirely indifferent to all in its path, but also transforming everything its wake. It could, if we were to try and stand up to it, kill us without remorse.
So, on top of the human drama generated by the threat of the storm, there is the awe inspiring scale of the storm system itself and the magnitude of its energy. The fact that Yasi, this individual entity, appeared as if from nowhere in the ocean and is suddenly larger than New Zealand and Italy. The fact that storm is over 500Km in diamater, with winds of over 300kms per hour. And, everything in Yasi’s path has to flee because of his extraordinary power, but we can’t help but look back in awe and fear and wonder and concern, like Lot’s wife (except without the whole pillar of salt thing).
“Wow, will you look at that, that is something Mother Nature has just whipped up overnight”, said the Man. “Yes, sure, amazing. I know. But of course as well as this meteorological alchemy, there is the likelihood that I am also a symptom of the the entire history of industrial civilisation” said Yasi.
So, I guess we will see what Yasi brings us in the next 24 hours or so. Grab the photo albums and run for your lives. I hope everyone up north stays safe.
(*Of course, I can’t separate my perverse excitement from the horror of the death and devestation, the aftermath. I do not intend to glorify the suffering caused by such events. But, the extraordinary nature of event itself needs comment, this unique temporality before the storm waiting, watching, and speculating is not often captured. So often we are relegated to comment after the fact and show respect for those directly affected. I hope by getting in in advance I am sort of insulated from that obligation. [Is that even logical? Can thought and writing even work like that?])
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” , 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”. 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. 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 . 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.
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 . 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”. 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 . 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 . 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
 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.
 The entire podcast can be streamed for free here – http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/296/after-the-flood
 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.
 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
 Ibid., p.1
 Ibid., p.2
“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.
I used to work for Tamarama Rock Surfers at the Old Fitz, and since my last project there finished up in late April, I’ve found it difficult to go back for a casual visit. I think my reluctance to return is analogous to not wanting to see an ex-partner for a little while; after a long relationship and difficult break-up, you generally need to wait some time before you see each other again. So, on Sunday I went to the Old Fitz and, no, we didn’t end up shagging in a vain attempt to relive the glory days, but the company was fine and the coffee was quite good. I mean that all quite literally, I was even given a warm cup of coffee from Kym Vercoe during the performance of Seven Kilomemetres North East on Sunday night.
SEVEN KILOMETRES NORTH EAST: Kym Vercoe & Version 1.0, in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers (N.B. SPOILERS WITHIN)
SKNE is a devised work that responds to Vercoe’s three trips to Bosnia and the Balkans. And, in particular, her stays at the Višegrad Spa Hotel, near Višegrad on the River Drina. SKNE is a devised one-woman performance that is part personal travelogue, part political-history lesson that combines monologue and audio-visual footage in a hybrid-narrative performance. The monlogue and performance is very polished and all AV went off smoothly, in trademark Version 1.0 style, demonstrating just how AV can and should be done in the theatre. The video footage, all of which was taken on Vercoe’s most recent trip to Bosnia, was successfully drawn into the narrative and made an integral part of the storytelling.
SKNE is a piece about the complex relationship between the tourist (Vercoe) and the place she visits (Bosnia/Višegrad). We learn a cool new word, “thano-tourism”. This issue is really interesting; “thanotourism” is travelling to a place with a history of death and trauma. Naming such an activity instantly makes it easier to question why we go to places like Auschwitz or The Killing Fields, and what it means to visit such a place. In short, why do we choose to be thanotourists? Vercoe, we discover, is the “accidental thanotourist”. That is, she went to a location unaware of the specifics of its violent past. Seven Kilometres North East is an attempt to comprehend her experience as an “accidental thanotourist”.
I really like the brief: rather than a piece that works to demonstrate the complex relationship between past and present, and the always already problematic nature of tourism, SKNE takes such entanglements as its point of departure. This is rich ground for a performance piece. I really like the set of questions the performance seeks to illuminate and explore: when we discover we are holidaying and enjoying ourselves on a site of genocide how can we respond? What can we do, if anything? What should we do, if anything? What do we do, if anything? How is the past implicated in the present? And, more obliquely, how is the present implicated in the past?
But, as a creative response to this matrix of problems, I do not think this piece really worked. And, in this I am somewhat alone, there is wide consensus that this is an excellent work of theatre. But it is because of the general affirmitve responses directed towards the work that I feel somewhat less afraid to get a bit more critical about it.
The entire performance was built upon Vercoe’s emotional response to the situation she ends up in: “Seven Kilometres North East” of Višegrad is the site of Višegrad Spa Hotel which was the site of mass atrocity. I want to go out on a limb and claim that the piece didn’t work for me because Vercoe’s own emotional response, especially really powerful emotions like guilt and shame, were not fully explored. And conversely, the specifics of the history were somewhat elided. This is important because it this piece attempts to link up the history of the place she visits with Vercoe’s emotional response to discovering that history. As a result, I read the central narrative outcome of the performance itself as a somewhat reductive substitution of the performer’s guilt at enjoying herself in Višegrad, for moral outrage at what happened. This emotional sleight of hand undoubtedly unlocks the personal paralysis caused by guilt, but what does it leaves us with? A feeling? An emotion? Or a rhetorical question: “why do people rape and kill each other?” Moral outrage doesn’t communicate the complexity of the problem the performer was trying to articulate. And, I would argue, it likewise does not get traction on her role, if any, within it.
The list of questions I traced above above seem pertinent here, in such a situation what can we do? what do we want to do? what should we do? and what do we do? are all different dimensions of a response, and, although the questions look very similar, I reckon real answers are likely to look very different. For instance, we can try and find the people responsible and bring them to justice, but maybe we want to go have a beer and stare at the river. For me, Seven Kilometres North East tried to pretend that what we can, should, want to and do do in a situation like this are the same, and, I felt that the performance was didactic in that in the end it forced me to feel that way too.
Having said this, the emotional king hit of the ending (and I felt it to be sure), certainly made me think through why I was somewhat disinterested in the travelogue section of the piece and why I ended up with no real particular detail about what did happen in the past, but why I felt sad for both Vercoe and the women who were raped and murdered in the hotel. The piece was forced me to feel what she felt. And in this the piece is incredibly successful, which is a real achievement. But to really entangle the personal and the historical, a more rigorous excavation of the personal and the historical than what was undertaken by Seven Kilometres North East.
Still, it’s taken a while for me to articulate all this, so it is not a superficial piece. It is doing complex things, but from my point of view I would like them done differently. In closing, regardless of what I think, SKNE definitely worth a look.
Seven Kilometres North East is on at the Old Fitz until Saturday 16th October. Tickets available at rocksurfers.org
ANOTHER SPECIES ENTIRELY: Friends with Deficits
Well, in comparison to Seven Kilometres North East, Another Species Entirely really was really another species entirely. 30 minutes of strange things being done with fruit, vegetables, wine and locks of hair. Friends with Deficits are an emerging performance collective who want to perform together, according to their program, ‘until the grow old and wrinkly’. And I hope they do, I’d really like to see where their work ends up. This particular piece, which I assume is unfinished, defies clear description. It seems to be about friendship and intimacy, drinking wine and being cantankerous. I would claim there was a radical feminist sensibility locked deep within the piece, but perhaps I like to think everything does, and certainly I couldn’t claim to know precisely the nature of this collective’s sensibility anyway. It was non-narrative, it involved hair and white stockings and it ended abruptly, with the audience not knowing it was done until one performer, in a gesture too natural to be scripted, came out from under a sheet and said “we were going to wait until you were all gone, but I’m getting hot under here”.
The Late Sessions at the Fitz, I know from having worked there, is all about new work getting air time in order to develop further. So, to conclude this woefully inadequate reflection on Another Species Entirely, my suggestions are that 1) someone needs to put the pineapple down their stockings, everyone I spoke to was waiting for it, and 2) the show needs to be longer, we all thought it was over but we all hoped it wasn’t. I’m gonna stay tuned for the next installment.
Another Species Entirely was only on for two nights. They have another gig coming up at Art and About on October 21. Details on Facebook
TRANSPORT: I had actually been around the WORLD on Sunday. I went on the “Keep it Wheel” bike ride and VegPledge for the 350.org global action day. Keep it Wheel was a well organised bikeride that was basically designed to reassure shop owners that “cyclists are consumers too”, in response to the panicked business owners who instigated class action suit against City of Sydney for damages brought about by its major bike lane project. VegPledge was a picnic in centennial park where we all posed for the camera and didn’t eat meat. Two really cool events. So, I rode from Newtown to Surry Hills to Pyrmont to Centennial Park to Woolloomooloo to Newtown. And, while I won’t describe the route in gory detail, it was easy and fun!