Thursday, March 11, 2010

Launch of Niall Lucy's Pomo Oz

Posted by Tracy

This is the text of the speech John gave in abridged form at last night's launch, held at Planet Books in Mount Lawley. (It was John's first venture out in months due to ill health.)

Niall's book is published by Fremantle Press.

LAUNCH SPEECH AS OBJECT: On Niall Lucy’s Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Downunder

John Kinsella

As subject, both as speaker responsible for the public presentation of a new work, an endgame in the mysterious but often exacting process of publication — and as point of reference as person and a creator of texts generally known as ‘poetry’ discussed in some detail within the work I am launching, and with pleasing empathy in the second part of this book, I feel privileged — and I use the word in a Derridean sense of privilege of speech and not metaphor — to be standing here, to be part of a spectacle whose evolution reaches back through the Enlightenment, finds some of its finest moments in a Chaser ‘fake motorcade at the APEC Summit’ in 2007, the prompt for this work in so many ways, and encompasses resistance to an increasingly deep-set status quo that is anti-ideas, anti-text, and generally fearful of truths whose existence it believes postmodernists deny.

In response to factors such as the bashing and brutality of the Howard years’ assault on critical thought, exemplified by that foolish exposition of emptiness, Kevin Donnelly’s Dumbing Down (launched by Howard) Niall Lucy claims that he is not necessarily a ‘postmodernist’ (though he might be), that a name is but a name, but that he is going to stand up to the plate (the American baseball allusion will be brought into focus, despite the firm anchoring of this book in Oz!), and take on those balls being hurled at critical thinking in schools and elsewhere. Cultural wars are religious wars, are crusades. Niall Lucy is writing against a New Crusade, and he is writing against cultural quarantine. He is writing for understanding and equality, for fairness. I have no scare quotes around any of this, which is really weird for me! The strangest subtextual thought I took from this book was that Howard’s Australia, and maybe ‘Rudd’s’ also, has no idea what ‘Australia’ is, even less so than Baz Luhrmann, who maybe knows a lot more than he’s letting on.

About time! I will say, as subject, personally, that I am unabashedly a ‘post-modernist’, and believe that to claim to be so is a claim to ‘truth’ and necessity. When I teach postmodernism, I usually start with a consideration of French Dandyism and 1830-50s France in particular; my journey takes me to Chicago and the architectural theories of Charles Jencks, with side tours via Thomas Pynchon and Language Poetry, ending with the attack on the ‘Twin Towers’. Behind all that is the ‘punch line’ of Niall’s contention that Derridean thought becomes not only blame but something akin to the ‘death of pleasure’ (please, critics of the postmodern, look to Baudrillard in the least here), ‘There is nothing outside the text.’ As Niall, with characteristic logic and efficiency, scythes his way through the inept thinking that allowed a generation of popular critics and educationalists to argue the ‘truth’ of the canonical and the denial of the need for truth in the ‘critical’, we become increasingly aware that communication of any event, however serious, can only be ‘textual’. Speaking of a letter by Artaud to Benjamin Crémieux, Derrida says:

Released from the text and the author-god, mise en scène would be returned to its creative and founding freedom. (Writing and Difference, Derrida, 237).

Considering an issue of surface, spectacle, and spectators, Derrida locates an entirety within and without text. For a student at high school — one fairly funded, say, rather than, as Niall notes, overprivileging private schools with public money, and creating disjunction — the sheer ability to value ideas expressed within the text as saying one thing and inevitably meaning another, is exciting. When Niall notes the university complaint that theory destroys ‘the pleasure of reading’ , then he laments that narrowness of a teaching that allows nothing in or out of the text, that truly there is nothing but the text in the literal sense. That the values of a piece of writing are intact and self-informing, that context is purely historical and localised. That how we read won’t alter those perceptions. But I am twisting Niall's words — he says this with so much more clarity. As subject I can illustrate by a couple of examples:

First: After 9/11 I told my American students that the destruction of the twin towers was the end of postmodernity as a functional critical application in America. The skyscraper undone, the skyscraper centring capitalism undone by ‘Holy War’ — a terminology that would suit the ‘attacked’ as much as the ‘attackers’. An Australian telling Americans. They weren’t sure where to position themselves. An ‘ally’, but a foreigner. This mattered to some in terms of what kind of ‘truths’ I could be uttering. Suddenly, this left-wing teacher was to be seen inverting a left-wingism. Postmodernism might be usefully right-wingism for some? If we start with architecture servicing the needs of capitalism (say, from 1972 per Jencks), if we start with the theories of postmodern architecture, are we always going to be looking to the right? I would clearly argue not (and did with my students), rather that postmodernism has become the resistance to that original perception of service to capitalism.

Some of my smartest students — the highest-achieving student graduated at the top of his year to leave to become a sanitary worker and showed me he’d learnt something — said, no, it wasn’t true that it would be the end of postmodernity in America. To explain: it is the consolidation of the postmodern. They will rebuild and the façades will be greater than ever. A Freedom Tower!? Indeed, and Ground Zero becomes a New Enlightenment, thoroughly Western in a way that would appal Derrida, and Chomsky. The point is that an anarchist such as myself can be ‘postmodern’ in worldview and practice (I see no choice), but so too can deeply conservative reinventors of the status quo who want to make the edifice greater than ever. They apply a kind of critical thinking that is the opposite to what I understand or take from the ‘event’, but in the end it is reduced to spectacle. It’s how we interpret that reduction that matters.[1]

Second: I studied at high school in Geraldton under a great postmodern teacher of literature — Bill Green. He let me run riot. Whether it was Blake or Tolkien, he encouraged the introduction of not only history but even chemistry theory into my final paper (which was, outlandishly, done on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings). I had, incidentally, bought the entire collection of Penguin ancient and English classics the year before, and read them from A to Z. I wasn’t lacking in the ‘classical’. Now, back then I was no pacifist, and Bill didn’t try to make me one, but critiquing war motifs in Lord of the Rings in the context of gender (go re-read Lord of the Rings) and racism (go re-read Lord of the Rings) took me from playing War Games to the streets. It needn’t have — he didn’t encourage that, in fact he was ‘neutral’ — I might just as easily have gone the Freedom Tower way. Point was, a critical faculty was engendered in me and I didn’t do what the author of the text intended or wanted or maybe just wondered I might do. For me, the author was dead. And I wanted to be one of those dead authors for whom text was the world, and the world was text because that’s the only way truth can be conveyed.

What I have said is at the basis of my friendship and admiration for Niall Lucy. His book is rigorous and yet highly readable. It’s also bloody funny at times and Miranda Devine and other such figures are played out in this new Dunciad Major. Don’t let the lines of exquisite prose fool you, this is a new type of writing, a poem-book that prize judges won’t know where to fit. But they should give it something to show that the old is confirmed in the new, whether they like it or not. In my favourite chapter, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond Williams’ (which I do because I am a pastoral guy who thinks big country houses hold most of the State’s evils) — Niall considers the fear of deconstruction in terms of a fear of a loss of authority on the part of the ‘Teacher’ (don’t worry, he’s firmly on their side) in terms of the State, and the university. He writes, with reference to Derrida, ‘Like the essence of a poem, the essence of the new international is that it doesn’t have one. Its limits, then, are indeterminate, approximating something like a positive form only in the conservative denunciation of whatever questions the authority of "proper" ways of thinking and the "proper" order of things.' Touché.

Harold Bloom says I can write canonical poems, I read canonical often realist literature, I believe in essences, I think metaphysics make for poor science but I love metaphysical poetry. I am a postmodernist. I am going to take Niall’s model and try to write an anti-pomo potboiler — it’s a good guide, he has read his dunces carefully and closely, and is too generous in his pisstake (to quote Marion May Campbell from the cover). Niall Lucy is the smartest bloke out there, and I hope he likes the book I am going to write as a result of thinking about the book he has written.

[1] I wish to prevent a possible confusion between motifs. (These comments should be taken in the context of a respectful acknowledgement of the many people who died in the destruction of the towers.) The Twin Towers were essentially modernist architecture — the new Freedom Tower will likely incorporate pomo architectural elements but not ultimately be double-coded in structure. But it will double-code in national and international meaning, as did the twin towers in their symbolism as target. I am not saying that the end of pomo was because the towers were pomo buildings, which was not the case (really), but rather, that the notion of the skyscraper that oversees the market (skyscrapers are panopticons that often obscure their own vantage points by being in each other’s eyelines, and by vying for space), looks out over the world in its modernist-capitalist certainty but dissembles in its electronic (networked, of course) sleight-of-hand, becomes double-coded and a symbol of corporate postmodernity. The irony being that postmodernity gave the critical tools to undo this reading and this function. Thus postmodernity has its own course, its own ‘mind’, becomes a set of organic critical tools (sure, gratefully co-opted by the left). These perceptions come out of my being a poet for whom poetry is a textual practice (poems as buildings, especially houses).