Saturday, March 28, 2009

Left of the left in the arid zone

By John

Train across was uneventful, though I managed to get quite a bit of writing work done. I am still disturbed by my encounters and confrontations with shooters the weekend before. As the train passes a relatively short distance from Maralinga, I am reminded why one has no choice but a life of resistance. Travelling less these days, and by land and sea, I am reminded how protest is something best achieved locally. It’s how you eat, how you shop (or don’t), how you live and conduct your life. The most effective form of protest is surely to reduce the hypocrisies of your own terms of existence.

By midday Monday, I’ll be a relatively short distance from Roxby Downs, one of the cores of the uranium mining industry in Australia. One of the factors I find defeating in cadre political gestures is that one is counted out of a protest equation if one is not on the line with others who are defining a moment of protest.

Protest needs to be holistic, ongoing, and reflect in the life-choices we make. Roxby Downs should be the site of an ongoing Greenham Common-type presence of protest, or people should entirely abandon any product, no matter how indirectly, that comes out of that mining source. Exporting uranium for the energy industry (aside from what gets consumed by the arms industry, whether admitted to or not), means that goods from software to computers to clothing and foodstuffs have been produced in countries utilising nuclear power as an energy source, and that in purchasing them one is supporting such usage. It is the most indirect forms of consumption that are the most insidious.

My point about cadre protesting – the confirmation of one’s presence is not enough when the material usages of those making the protest support (however obscurely) the things they’re resisting. A means to an end? I am not convinced, and those who are least consuming the products of marketplace economies (always dictatorships, be it through so-called elected government or so-called single-party states or corporate interests), are those we don’t hear from, unless their action is local, and they are acting on their home space, and we see them incidentally on the media.

For those protesters doing as I am doing (and I promise, will stop doing soon), and using a computer in any way, you are acting neither locally nor with impunity in terms of culpability. Your protest against environmental degradation collapses before it begins; the ravagers of environment hide behind their lies of sustainability and/or brute force or legal and political sinecures -- such protest is hobbled by its irony and feeds into the perpetrators’ hands.

Mobile phones are the biggest irony of all. Consider what goes into the making of them, never mind the implications behind their use. Statements like this make those of the left you have associated with over decades, by way of agreeing in difference regarding tactics and ultimately aims (my aim is for small communities acting on consensus and with an ecological respect rather than larger centralised majority-rules outcomes) – seek to deny you or to separate you off from the left.

Where does that leave you? Not with the right who try to shoot you for being part of the ‘loony left’! As an anarchist, I am happy to be placed outside everything, though the socialist underpinnings of a strand of anarchism I have long been interested in, necessitate my conversing in a spirit of co-operation with the socialist left. But I am as anti-Marxist as I am as anti-fascist. Which is not to say I don’t read and apply Marxist epistemologies to my reading and thinking (and writing), as I do, but doctrines of Marxism are as far from anarchism as anything else.

And it doesn’t suffice for those of the left to separate those in university enclaves from those living in inner city squats. A lot of us have ‘been there’. And if you’re there and starving and drug-addicted, you don’t want to be there. (I do entirely support inner-city squatter culture, though.) Let me make it clear, universities are systems, and all systems need resisting and undoing. And yes, I do believe working from the inside out is effective. And I do have to help feed a family. I have reduced to half-time in order to plant trees, grow vegetables and change the dynamics of my life. Not as some ‘life-change’ scenario – I lived without any amenities and outside all ‘acceptable’ societal conditions for years on end when I was younger – but as a statement of refusal and also to reduce my impact on a very fragile and abused land.

I sit writing this in a hotel on the edge of the desert – a lot of those staying here come from the mines and secret weapons facilities. The room probably glows. My hosts asked if I’d fly over Roxby Downs in a small plane – I said not only have I given up flying, but I would never go near a uranium mine. Poem after poem against the nuclear industry, anti-nuclear protest after anti-nuclear protest (including one of my arrests which was conducted by an old school-colleague from Geraldton), and belief that all large-scale mining is wrong (my father worked on mines and my great-grandfather on my mother’s side died of dust-on-the lungs managing the South Champion gold mine at the now-ghost-town of Kookynie); all this is a life’s protest.

Protest has many faces: none should be denied, the implications of all should be considered. None is more ‘pure’ than the others, but the most effective is when we make least use of the ‘benefits’ of what we’re protesting against. Travel makes use of so many 'resources' (that most deceptive of words).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Not-so-low-tech (after all)

By Tracy

When we were living in Ohio, USA, just over four years ago, there was a severe ice storm just before Christmas and about 9000 homes in our area were left without electricity. (Ours was out for five days.)

Many of us who had no alternative heating spent that Christmas displaced. Especially bizarre was the fact that on any one street, some had power and some did not, depending on which company you were hooked up through. This meant that while some families had to sleep on the floor at the YMCA, others had their houses ablaze with decorative lighting.

The people who, from the outside, seemed least affected were the Amish, who had never relied on the grid in the first place.

During our time there, I had been with our daughter on a trip (organised by the college’s Jewish student group; anyone could go along) to nearby Holmes County to experience Amish diplomacy/hospitality. The aim was to increase understanding, to give a little insight into how Amish people live, with a “host” well accustomed to explaining and interacting at the interface between his culture and the wider world. There’s much to admire in the Amish emphasis on community and small-scale living.

(As vegans, Katherine and I were a little adrift in the Amish restaurant, sticking to the side salads in an incredibly meat-heavy environment; while veganism was an unfamiliar idea to our Amish host, he had – of course! – no problem with the idea of strong principles that might put you at odds with your surroundings...)

It’s easy to romanticise the notion of Amish living, especially when it’s portrayed with the kind of moral idealism of a film like Peter Weir’s Witness. But the reality is always more complex.

There’s a fascinating investigation of Amish attitudes to technology on Kevin Kelly's site The Technium. Many of the responses posted below his article are also interesting.

Particularly disturbing is the readiness to take up GM technology in a kind of functional-utilitarian manner, as it’s depicted there. Of course, as Kelly shows, the Amish are not homogeneous. What happens in one group may not happen in another.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Low-tech browsing

By Tracy

Thinking about those items on my low-tech wishlist, I've been looking for more information on the topic, and have been browsing the website of Low-tech Magazine.

Apart from the odd article that suggests humans revert to (ab)using animals (like the idea of going back to horses instead of tractors -- why is it always this binary?), which obviously presents problems from a vegan/animal-rights perspective, the site is full of good ideas and very useful background material.

It even provides links to an amazing place in Belgium called The Museum for Old Techniques that is a repository of past tools, methods and texts, a kind of education centre too.

But back to the original site, Low-tech Magazine: there are unexpected features such as "The Ugly Side of Solar Panels" which raises (incorporating its own corrected errors with strikeout!) some of the issues we have often worried about, e.g. the energy-use and pollution generated by the production of solar panels themselves. The article reminds us that "solar cells are far from a zero emission technology"... but I'll leave you to read it for yourself if you're interested.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Valéry, Stendhal & the drive to "fame"

By Tracy

Sometimes, writers speaking about other writers tell us more about themselves than about their subject. This has been said of Sartre's book on Baudelaire, and I've been contemplating it while reading the poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) on Stendhal*.

Valéry was purportedly an admirer of his predecessor -- "one of the demi-gods of our literature... We should never have done with Stendhal. I can think of no higher praise", yet there are times in his essay "Stendhal" when you can't help wondering how fiercely jealous of Stendhal he also was. Rather than damning with faint praise, it seems now and then like praising with damnation...

"The least foolish of great authors, yet always fretting about being read forever and found moving, Stendhal, for all his wit, for all the pleasure he took in catching himself out...was nevertheless divided between his immense desire to please and to become famous, and the opposite mania, his delight in being himself, in his own eyes, in his own way. He felt... the spur of literary vanity; but he also felt a little deeper down the strange sharp pricking of an absolute pride determined to depend on nothing but itself." (p. 13)

This sounds almost theological! -- the author as either crowd-pleaser or wilfully aloof, Satanic in his pride. (And Valéry does go on to link it to theology and "sin".) First what stuns me is Valéry's "ability" to know what Stendhal "felt" (deduced, at most), and second, the polarisation of this drama, this tension that must surely be something Valéry knows at first hand.

He proceeds with a long diatribe on the drive to fame -- almost two pages long. And at the end of it he concedes he might have wandered from his topic (er, Stendhal, was it?) a little -- "I may have pursued my enquiry rather further than was appropriate in discussing Stendhal; what I have just written would be more applicable to Nietzsche..." (p. 15) (as if to draw attention away from the emotively personal nature of the diatribe: is he really talking about himself?).

"[T]his furious urge [to give expression to our talents] is determined to sell our soul to other people; and the power within us, once it overflows and takes its course, nearly always sweeps us away from ourselves; it carries our Ego where it did not expect to go, involving it in a world of display, comparison, and counter-evaluation where the Ego becomes somehow, for itself, an effect of the effect it creates on a large number of unknown people... Once a man is known, he tends to be no more than an emanation of an indistinguishable number of unknowns, that is to say, a creature formed by opinion, an absurd public monster to whom the real man gradually yields and conforms." (pp. 13-14)

How does Valéry know this, except from his own case? Surely it can't be a general truth -- he seems to be saying writers inevitably start to "believe their own publicity".

"The man who feels himself a victim of the evil of not being unique wears himself out in inventing something that will distinguish him from his fellow men. The desire to be different becomes an obsession. And it may well be that it is not so much the desire to set himself above other people as to set himself entirely apart from and, as it were, beyond comparison with them which gnaws at him and drives him on." (pp. 14-15)

No wonder Valéry then feels obliged to concede this isn't really Stendhal. (Which makes me ask, why does he put it in the essay on Stendhal?) Asserting any of this about Stendhal would be markedly ungenerous. My Stendhal (probably every reader of Stendhal flatters him/herself they have "got" him) really "wears himself out in inventing" because he likes inventing, is intrigued by the whole process. Much more than by the product.

Which may be why he left so much work (deliberately?) unfinished...

*Paul Valéry, "Stendhal", trans. M. Turnell, in Harold Bloom, ed. Stendhal, New York, Chelsea House, 1989, pp. 7-30.
LEFT: The "Egotist" himself, Stendhal...portrait by Johan Olaf Sodemark (1790-1848), 1840; in the Musée National du Château de Versailles

Sunday, March 15, 2009

GPS and forest destruction

By John

We were down in the forests near Armadale yesterday, and quickly and carefully removed ourselves from one reserve due to major dieback problems (thoroughly cleaning shoes etc). Astonishingly, a school premises had been carved out of the forest next to the reserve, and the efforts to prevent dieback were offset against a celebration of pony club and horse trails through the same area. But horses don’t clean dieback spores off their hooves, and riding them through such sensitive areas can only spread dieback further.

Being near the outskirts of the city, these forest places come under massive pressure from leisurists and pleasurists (as I call them) — those who claim to be interacting or connecting with ‘nature’, but are in fact merely using it as a resource for their own enjoyment or ‘fulfilment’. The essentially selfish nature of so much human usage comes into play here, even if it’s occluded with claims of being nature-lovers and conservationists; this activity can be as damaging as mining or logging to these areas.

One form of forest usage that seems destructive to me is that of the GPS walkers who use technology to traipse their way off-trail through the forests. When forest is seen only as a resource, mastery of it through technology is the symbol of a new form of wilderness catechising. If technology fuses with the sense that nature is a blank, empty slate — in need of filling, controlling, logging, renaming — into an exercise-and-freedom illusory scenario, the liberty of all living things suffers.

For me, anarchism isn’t just about human narcissism, especially that of certain humans who steal custodial claims and make them their own, but about the right of all living things to a reasonable chance at survival and self-expression (yes, even single-celled animals have this right!).

The desire to control and map with artificial aids seems to show an unwillingess to understand the world outside the human — inevitably, if we aren’t willing to respect the land, we are going to brutalise it. (I think my next book of poetry will be entitled ‘Rapacious’).

I was going to send a letter to the GPS-walk-people in the region, but will post it here instead. A public letter, as most of us are to some degree complicit, I am sure. I mention Kinsella Road in this letter, as its name is used on GPS-walking websites arbitrarily; not that this is anything like the way non-indigenous people use town and other locality names that have been stolen or taken from indigenous languages without second thought. In fact, they take ownership of them. In the language of coordinates, all signs are emptied out. 'Kinsella' as 'sign' has no more importance than any other, but my point is that all signs (and descriptions, be they a reference to a tree or a human-made object), signify something other than a means to an end.

Ironically, my Kinsella grandfather was a head state forester and the entire region of forest known as Gleneagle and beyond is still named Kinsella on state foresting maps. I don’t need to explain what this signifies in terms of name overlays, implications of imperialism and exclusion of the original and ongoing indigenous custodians/traditional owners. I use the word ‘owners’ in a general sense of relationship with land, not as a surveyed, material notion of property, which I reject no matter who claims land: for an anarchist, land ownership is nominal (I well know the situation), and arbitrary. It is a compliance to demands of state, but can be worked around by denial of its absolute value. Real ‘ownership’ is about caring and respect, and can be transient as well as continuous. But ultimately it’s about knowledge and preservation, and GPS notions of land relationships appear to exclude these. Anyway, I refer to Kinsella Road because it fits within the GPS-walkers’ own naming system and at least allows me a point of entry within their own GPS co-ordinates:

'you might notice my name is that of one of the roads used as a "waypoint" where you gpsWALK. it is named after my grandfather. i actively campaign against abuse of the forests - tramping dieback through the forests, lack of consideration for wildlife and flora and in general, are as horrendous as selective logging, horse riding, and other such exploitations of nature. people who require satellites to interact with ‘nature’ don't seem to me to have much empathy with the natural world. none of us can afford to be pleasure-seekers who see the world as their playground and resource. it is hypocritical or naive at best. furthermore, the areas you cross through are often sacred to indigenous people and deserve more respect on this basis alone.

reducing forests to gps co-ordinates, and the desire to go off the trails and destroy what little remains of the natural world, is rapacious and needs to be challenged in every way possible. i certainly will be campaigning against your activities.'

john kinsella

I propose a discourse of 'de-mapping' (best expression I can come up with at the moment!). Basically I want to de-map rather than map things. More on this later...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Macro & micro, politics & poetics

By Tracy

I’m finding as I read through material on Stendhal now at the start of my PhD that I can’t help constantly feeding it back into my own mental landscape as a writer.

Of course, “scholarly objectivity” doesn’t really exist, and anyone brings to their studies what they do elsewhere in life (a builder reading Stendhal, or criticism on Stendhal, would bring a builder’s knowledge and issues to the material, likewise a dancer, a tailor, a musician, an architect – whatever!).

Even though the material is necessarily looking at the nineteenth century and at realism, a contemporary writer inevitably measures ideas against his or her own practice.

So Lukács* in “Balzac and Stendhal” leads me to ponder how we do or don’t incorporate the “bigger” political and social world in our fiction. He’s talking about Balzac’s praise-and-criticism for Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma...

Lukács says:

In Balzac’s view Stendhal’s novel achieves its comprehensive typicality precisely because its scene is laid in Parma, on a stage of trivial interests and petty intrigues... Balzac reveals an essential structural quality of the great realistic bourgeois novel. The writer, the “historian of private life” as Fielding put it, must describe the hidden fluctuations of society, the intrinsic laws governing its movements, its incipient trends, its invisible growth and its revolutionary upheavals. But great historical events, and the great figures of history can very rarely be adapted to the demonstration of society in the form of concrete types... Balzac considers that a writer does not know his craft if he chooses for his subject the external glitter of great historical events instead of the internal riches found in the characteristic development of social elements. (pp 35-6)

Okay, so we’re no longer in the heyday of the great Realists anymore, but as a writer (getting distracted from my PhD work, or maybe not!) I think there’s still something to be absorbed from this.

Often if you deal with the “trivial” and “up-close” and “personal” you may be accused of ignoring or even deliberately excluding the larger-scale (as if human life were not lived on both scales – and even others), despite the fact that, as feminisms have stressed, the personal is political...

Balzac was not promoting what Lukacs calls “petty realism, the trivially detailed painting of local colour” (that might for instance be purely sentimental) but praises for example Walter Scott by writing:

Scott never chose great events as subjects for his pen, but he always carefully develops the causes which led to them, by depicting the spirit and morals of the age, and presenting a whole social milieu instead of moving in the rarified atmosphere of great political events. (p. 36)

For me this is a valuable way of thinking about the approach to the “political” in a novel, and it’s something I’ll be trying to take on board both in my reading and in my writing.

*Georg Lukács, “Balzac and Stendhal,” trans. H. M. Parshley, in Harold Bloom, ed. Stendhal: Modern Critical Views, New York, Chelsea House, 1989, pp31-49

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Low-tech wish-list

By Tracy

I’m not one to covet objects, but there are a few useful items that seem to have disappeared, or are at least quite hard to get now.

These are things I’ve had in the past (or my parents had) that I’d love to get hold of again – not for nostalgia’s sake, but because you can use them unplugged, and they work so well...

1. Mouli-grater, hand-operated.

2. Jaffle iron, the sort you can use in a woodstove. No Teflon lining (Teflon is ubiquitous these days, and nobody seems to care whether it’s good for you).

3. Bread crock. In the hot weather our bread (because low on additives) goes mouldy quickly; if I put it in the fridge, it goes stale. It can be composted, of course, but better to avoid waste altogether... (I don't want a crock with lead anywhere in its glaze or paint, so this makes it harder.)

4. Wooden hand-held coffee grinder*, the sort you place between your knees, that has a little drawer. Ditto for nut and/or spice grinder. In the back of my mind I know I must one day give up drinking coffee. But while I do, I’d rather have this low-tech device than an electric one.

5. Soap dish that drains; also soap cage, for not wasting little pieces of soap (strictly speaking it was my grandmother who had this, much further back).

6. Washboard. Very useful for what must be handwashed, at the very least.

7. Ordinary stainless steel cookware. Here in the wheatbelt, it's very hard to find. Teflon is everywhere...

*Image of coffee grinder is File:Mlynek.jpg, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Source: en:Mlynek.jpg Originally uploaded to en-wiki by en:User:Mohylek, GFDL
(Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
Subject to disclaimers.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Cheer-you-up cakes

By Tracy

Tim (6) has a cold... and a theory that cakes "cheer you up" when you are unwell. (A theory that is not in any way self-serving, of course.)

My icing spirals are a little unsteady, but they still taste okay. There are now only two cakes left, in the time since the photo was taken!

If you want to make cakes like these without dairy or eggs, you can simply substitute with non-dairy plant milks (I used soy, cup for cup) and any of various "egg replacers" -- I used Orgran's "No Egg", because it never fails and you can keep it in the cupboard for ages (it's powdered, made of potato starch basically). Other things you can use instead of egg:

Half a mashed banana (always works, but your cake will have a banana-ish tang, which you may or may not want!)
Mashed soft tofu (neutral taste), about 4tbsp
Apple sauce (works beautifully to make a moist chocolate cake, for example), about 3 tbsp
Ground flax (have never used this myself, but How It All Vegan says about 3 tbsp)

and another one I've never used, but it sounds good -- Wakeman and Baskerville's The Vegan Cookbook also suggests 4 tbsp of pureed mango...

Instead of butter, you can use a vegan margarine (Nuttelex, in Australia), or light vegetable oil, which I find makes a good texture (canola or sunflower oil -- a quarter cup per two cups of flour in the cake/s). Sometimes, when using applesauce, you don't even need extra fat content at all, because the cake is moist without it. You can also use coconut milk, but it's not super-healthy.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Talkin' 'bout my generation...

By Tracy

I just came across this gem on the site for the 2009 This is Not Art Festival. Having recently styled myself a "radical egalitarian" (!), I'm amused to find that (yet again) some are more equal than others.

"The National Young Writers' Festival is Australia's premier event for emerging writers, publishers, performers and trouble-makers. Far from the seas of white hair, book signings and celebrity author worship you might expect, the NYWF is a DIY, hands-on conversation between equals."

(I never knew hair colour could be so intimidating! Rules out both Andy Warhol and my own dear John.)

It's enough to bring down your grey hairs in sorrow to the grave, as they say in that (old, so old) book of Genesis.

PS I'm all for youth -- or anyone else -- defining a space for themselves. But the ageism (hair-ism?) seems to contradict the claim to egalitarianism here.