• Men Recommend David Foster Wallace to Me by Deirdre Coyle in Electric Lit 

    ‘The men in my life who love Wallace also love legions of stylistically similar male writers I’m not interested in (Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth). I began checking out of literary conversations with them altogether. Now, when getting into book discussions with a certain kind of man, I often say “I can’t read” as soon as possible. This is a pretty transparent defense mechanism, but it works for me, sort of.’

In my opinion, people consume meat because they like it, and they consume art because they like it. When art (even accidentally) makes explicit what eating meat entails (slaughter, pain, blood, guts) they don’t like it. Of course, that’s an ends-justifies-means argument, a fat-man-on-the-track argument, so it doesn’t buy any social currency.

All that verbiage and I still don’t know whether Nitsch’s performance is justified. I can argue that it does good by creating awareness of moral hypocrisy (highlighting the slaughter of millions of beasts a year for unneeded food) but it is hard to find a way that avoids it being categorised as a direct action, and humans generally think doing good by doing bad is wrong. But our biology is generated by evolution, and the survival-of-the-fittest mechanism doesn’t maximise morality. When people are faced with the trolley problem they will routinely sacrifice one to save five. Unless that one is kin, or a sexual partner. That moral spasticity is a lot less concerning to me than this one: I learned as a Catholic boy about ‘sins of omission’—for example, recounting a story but leaving out the important, self-incriminating bit. Murder is a sin of commission, but not saving someone when you can is a sin of omission. Some early Catholic theologians contended that these two categories of ‘sin’ held equivalent culpability. My Catholicism has long since collapsed but I see merit in the argument.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer argues that working in rapacious Wall Street jobs (rather than being, say, a doctor in the third world) is eminently moral, because it maximises capacity to spend resources helping others.

Constructing and operating Mona has, so far, cost me around $300,000,000. The economic benefit to Hobart has been enormous, and although I didn’t intend it I am often lauded for my contribution. Singer, and others, point out that mosquito nets cost around $10 (by the time they are transported to a place where they are useful) and about one time in 500 they save a life by preventing a fatal bout of malaria. So, the calculus is simple—saving a life costs about 500*10 or $5,000. Had I spent my money that efficiently, instead of building Mona, I could have saved 60,000 lives. Of course, doing that might have left Hobart in the economic doldrums. A man on the street the other day described me as a ‘saint’. Little he knew. Somewhere, on that same street, another man might have been shipping all of his excess resources off to anonymously save lives (and those resources might come from honourable employment—not Wall Street nor the Japan tote). His sanctity is undeniable, but invisible.

Let’s talk about you, now. I don’t know you, but you may have made some great lifestyle choices. The chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you are self-aware, have a social conscience, and consider yourself a bit of a lefty. But you also earn far more, and consume far more, than your average fellow human. The average global income is about $20,000 (massively skewed by rich fuckers like me—about a billion people subsist on less than a dollar a day). You probably drive a modest car (a hybrid). If you caught buses instead you could save around six lives with the money you spent on that wholesome transport. But, let’s face it, you would have to get up half an hour earlier.

…stopping Nitsch won’t stop me doing the sort of self-serving, status-enhancing, biologically-bound good that I do through Mona. You should be protesting that, too. And you also should have a crack at getting your own ‘house in order’ (as the Bible says). You should, of course, stop eating meat, and rapacious crops, and you should stop doing anything that has cost (economic, social or environmental). And you should take all the cash you squander and spend it buying mosquito nets, or some other efficient life-saving interventions. For, as the Bible also says, ‘why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’

Your life is no longer yours. Having being released from the ties of religion, and the indentured servitude of social expectation, you are now bound by the strictures of ethical philanthropy. And also by the ineluctable need to undermine a performance that changes very little beyond expediting the unjust demise of a beast, and luring you into reading this sentence, and those before it.

…at least, acknowledge that its death was foreordained, not because of me, nor Hermann Nitsch, and not because of an iniquitous system, but because of the sanitisation of that system? I’m planning to aid and abet the murder of this animal. Is it possible that those who oppose this performance are aiding and abetting the iniquitous system, by concealing one more slaughter? Throughout this blog, and my adult life, I’ve not been able to find an answer to these questions.

  • intersectionality’ is not a brand by Ruby Hamad in the Age the west depends on the exploitation of others to exist in its current, relatively comfortable form.

    The oppressions we see play out here, the ones we are so determined to stamp out – racial oppression, body shaming, gender oppression, disability, homophobia, and transphobia – these are all reflections of the larger oppression that drives them: the historical and ongoing capitalist exploitation of the Global South by the west.

    The Global South refers to those countries we have variously called the “third world” or the “developing world” but which really should be known as “countries that have been subjected to European colonisation and imperialism.”

    The poverty and instability in these nations did not come about by accident or as a result of their own inferiority. Hundreds of years of being exploited for their labour and their resources has led us here.

    …Critiquing the exploitative practices of multi-million dollar corporations is now being interpreted as “shaming” individual people for existing and consuming in a capitalist economy. Yes, even feminists are now using the mantra of “choice” to minimise obvious injustice.

    Have we become adept at applying “intersectionality” only when it suits us, when the challenge to our own behaviour is minimal? Are we too busy asserting our own identities to recognise broader needs?

    If so, what is the point of identity politics?

    Oppression is more than identification – it is group-based not individual based – although it does certainly affect individuals, and some individuals more than others.

    What does this have to do with capitalism?

    Even as we celebrate feminism and applaud increased diversity on our own fashion runways, we allow capitalism to appropriate our concepts of empowerment while they disempower the workers behind the scenes who – in entirely different countries – may be working in dire conditions for almost no money. And we seem to be OK with that, because those countries are poor and brown. And different.

    We need to move beyond a superficial reading of intersectionality that presumes “inclusion” and “empowerment” of individuals are an end in themselves. Undoubtedly having more brown and black and Asian faces on Australian TV screens is desirable – but this, in and of itself, does not solve the problem of racism and oppression, because representation on our screens is only a symptom of a larger problem, rather than the problem itself.

    Similarly, “empowerment” when it is appropriated by capitalism merely comes to mean feeling pleased and happy with yourself for making a particular choice, rather than ensuring that all women have equal access and opportunity to make choices.

    What we need is a feminist movement that crosses borders – or preferably demolishes them – and truly recognises that oppressions ostensibly aimed at other groups and other countries can also affect us (including as beneficiaries of that oppression), which means, as Audre Lord said so magnificently, “I am not free when any woman in unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

    For all of us as women to become free, to be truly liberated, requires us to refocus on systems of oppression – and our role in them – even as we acknowledge the importance of identity, and individual experience, and yes, representation.

    We either do this or we allow our movement to become yet another tool of capitalism. Feminism cannot allow capitalism to continue appropriating its concepts without ultimately rendering them – and feminism itself – meaningless.

…Taste is subjective. It is built from our personal experiences, our values, what we have read and watched and listened to all through our lives, and even stuff such as gender, race, nationality, and so on. Taste is political. Most of us would prefer our art to simply reinforce, rather than challenge, our worldview, so we tend to read writers who share our backgrounds, our values and so on. We create little artistic bubbles and don’t question them nearly enough.

For a very long time, the literary gatekeepers pretended their taste was objective, not subjective. And because the traits of those gatekeepers, who were not just white men but Ivy League-educated, upper-middle-class white men located in cultural centres like New York and London, were predictably consistent, they often reached consensus. These are the books that are important. No really, just these ones. Those other writers are “minor”.

What they deemed important were mostly books that reinforced their worldview, that were also written by Ivy League-educated, upper middle-class white men; men like David Foster Wallace. Or Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth, or any of the other writers whose importance we’ve all had explained and explained until we wanted to scream Ack! into a pillow.

But a lot of us do this. Right now I’m reading Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, and I love it. But I understand that one of the reasons I love it is because it makes me feel clever for getting the jokes. It references and sends up French structuralists and post-structuralists, makes jokes about gender studies and analytical philosophy, name-drops figures like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others whom I have already read.

So is that it, then? We should all just read the stuff that fits our bubbles and forget the rest? But shouldn’t art do the opposite? Shouldn’t it make us curious about other worldviews, other demographics, other ideas and ways of living? Shouldn’t it be expansive and disruptive, rather than reinforcing?

Yes, of course. But that only works if we drop our obliviousness and understand our subjectivity. If we understand why we want to think of other worldviews as marginal.

I’m teaching poetry at the moment, and consequently thinking a lot about form—what is it about poetry that makes it poetry, particularly in the absence of lineation? There are times when I want to give up on the genre, but I find I keep leaving only to loop back. I like how in poetry you are always asking these questions—questions about what it is exactly you are doing, and why it should be called poetry, and whether you still want to do it—and how every time you write you are trying, in some way, to answer, even if only provisionally.
I find the question of genre, in general, both interesting and difficult. I didn’t know how to describe the book as I was putting it together, and still don’t, except to evoke various generic categories (poetry, photography, collage)—these adequately describe the parts, but not the whole…I think what I wanted was not synthesis, but the coexistence of forms: it was important to me that the images and text together created a world, while at the same time retaining their distinctness as different modes of expression.

…In Sartre’s Nausea, the narrator, Antoine Roquentin, tries to articulate a similar dread. He fails, at first, and then grasps it. “I felt like I was gently slipping into the water’s depths, towards fear,” he says. Heidegger said that dread is a thief: it robs us of speech, of our faculties, and reveals the nothing. It is as if you open your eyes and your furniture is missing, your kitchen is bare, your bedroom is empty, and your cat is gone. It’s overwhelming. It’s nauseating. According to Sartre, nausea is existence revealing itself – and existence is not pleasant to see. It’s unpleasant in an artless way, in a way that ends coherence. There is no such thing as a barbaric poem, at least not in a way that has ever made sense to me, but there is such a thing, I believe, as silence.

The poet Anne Boyer once observed that poetry is the wrong art for people who love justice. I’m not sure I ever understood sentences like that. I’m not sure I understood Theodore Adorno, who wrote that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. But here I am, quiet, afraid, and robbed of coherency: is this what silence is? Is this barbaric?

I’m thinking of a friend of mine who is a fine poet, and who has a sense of justice so lucid and felt that it seems prototypical, almost Platonic were it innocent and un-strident. We sometimes have conversations about art, and about poetry, and about the purpose of poetry and prose and all that stuff in between in the face of all the stuff out there, in the world, where our bodies are on the line, where children are dying and the polar ice-caps are melting and yet the world is still sliding, loudly, inexorably, towards doom, as if it wasn’t yet enough. He tells me that stories saved his life. Books saved his life. Fiction and poetry saved his life. I wonder what saved my life? I read things on the internet. News, information, sometimes even poetry, but mostly funny things and silly things and things concerning the lives of my friends. Very rarely do I read something that I can point to and say: this is why I am alive. Very rarely. Almost never.

~

My ancestors may have been sailors: they’re a coastal people, so it’s possible, but they never left Africa, not permanently, until my father and my mother came to Australia. The story of humanity, at least the National Geographic version of it, always starts with when humans left Africa. That they had fire and caves and complex systems of social interaction recognisable to us as human, and then they left. They went to Europe and maybe lived with Neanderthals for a while, obtained some of their DNA, and maybe killed them. They went to Asia where they also maybe lived with Neanderthals and also obtained some of their DNA and also maybe killed them. They crossed deserts and plains and steppe and mountain, all the while carrying Neanderthal DNA in little sacks tied around their waists. Some took to the sea and found islands and entire continents, bringing Neanderthal DNA to new places. Sub-Saharan Africans are the only people on earth without Neanderthal DNA, but every article I read about Neanderthal’s mentions that these ghosts are present in ‘human DNA’ and whenever I read that I look at my wrist and think, there’s a continent full of people being erased here. Those humans stayed in Africa and moved and fought and settled all over its breadth, all without Neanderthal DNA. Some, like my parents, didn’t leave till 1993. What about those humans? Where does their story fit into things?

What happens when you deny someone their story, even by accident? Well, the story doesn’t just disappear. It gets stolen and co-opted into something monstrous. It also becomes profoundly boring.

~

…Many friends of mine cried at home and went into work the next morning anxious and afraid. I drank too much wine and worried that my art had become suddenly obsolete.

~

I want to write a novel and every time I sit down, freshly shaved and showered and shot full of caffeine, I think to myself, ok, this is what it is about: …and then I read a novel or book of poetry or book of essays and I’m immediately shamed. What is this? Why even bother committing to something when it immediately shames you? Why even write? So I deny my stories… Soon there is no novel because the novel, you see, has died.

And now, there’s the internet, which is where lies wish to live, so my own fiction seems strange and grotesque everywhere else, especially in this world, where the polar ice-caps are melting in the summer and failing to re-freeze in the winter, and you can now sail right through the north pole as if it’s just another sea.

~

Instead of denying people their stories, a better thing to do is not understand them at all. I think this is why Trump is so profane to us: we understand his story perfectly. We have seen his fist-like face and his fist-faced children and we have their measure; his incoherence and narcissism hides nothing from us; his sinister viziers are known to us; his methods are not at all new. Yet we cannot deny him so we must oppose him, which carries it’s not insignificant portion of despair, because in war you lose battles and we can’t afford to lose battles in a world where half of all species are set to go extinct in less than three decades and polar bears are drifting on sleds of ice in warm seas and the ocean itself is, in some places, painted red and whale carcasses are shot through with dynamite-tipped harpoons.

If only the world was so much more like poetry. If only it was a better thing to only understand a little of it and an even better thing for it to be strange.

~

And I return to Anne Boyer who, in her collection of prose poem-essays, Garments Against Women, writes that information is the poetry of people who love war.

She also writes poems that are strange and beautiful and incomprehensible and then says that it is not justice that is enthralling, but ‘justice-like waves, and a set of personal issues, like the aestheticisation of politics and the limitations of reading lists before the digital age.’

~

So here are a set of personal issues:

  1. Why does philosophy remain interesting right up until the moment it becomes boring?
  2. What are the limits of poetry in the face of dread?
  3. Can people change?
  4. Instead of aestheticising politics, can we de-aestheticise the world of ‘not-politics’ in such a way so that only the body remains?
  5. Even if aesthetes aren’t merely sophists, what’s so bad about sophistry?
  6. When I tweet ‘This failing cafe ran out of so-called muffins today. SAD!’ am I aestheticising politics? Is this profane? Or is it just a boring parody that achieves nothing except hiding the dead bodies that are buried in the words?
  7. Are stylistic flourishes in storytelling deliberate ploys that enhance the text or merely a mask for a lack of polish?

~

I once read a sentence in a novel that went something like this: ‘He devoured her with a look.’ Beyond the basic digestive philosophy of it: that ‘to know is to eat,’ I struggled to actually imagine what this type of gaze would look like on a person. The closest I can get to imagining this gaze is to imagine a look of hunger, but that’s just the image suggesting itself, and besides, what does hunger look like anyway? Yet I know it’s a real look: it’s a leer. It’s a violent gaze.

Whenever I struggle to run a very basic visualization exercise in my head (i.e. What does a grin look like? What does a leer look like? What does a glare look like?) and I inevitably fail, I often find myself thinking, What if there are other seemingly fathomable things that are actually unfathomable to me? What else am I missing?

~

Elie Wiesel once said that, sometimes, in moments of grace, writing can attain the quality of deeds. I think about this often. Five times a day or more. But not about the act of writing, but about the relationship between writing and thinking and deeds. It’s like this: I want a cigarette but I am not really aware of this fact until I am reaching for my pouch and pinching the filter between my lips as I measure out the tobacco. I am only aware of the deed, and I don’t even think to ask myself: where was the thought? Relationship to deed is the difference, I think, between writing and thinking. Thinking is father to the deed, but writing is, at best, a translation. But sometimes, in moments of grace…

~

My psychologist, in our very first session, taught me to observe my problem thoughts, and place them in a box, and place the box in the hands of a sturdy agent, and have the agent get into a black car, and have the car drive through forbidding back-country roads, till it arrives at a sinister building carved out of a mountain. The thoughts get placed in a vault, and the vault is locked. The vault, the car, the back-country roads: they are my invention. In her exercises, she taught me to imagine the thought on a leaf, and to imagine my hands cupping this leaf and placing it gently on a stream, watching it flow away into the calm, distant waters of obscurity.

These exercises don’t always work, but sometimes, in moments of grace, they do and I find that my chest has calmed and I don’t quite feel so strange and so small anymore.

  • Can editors – or algorithms – save the news? by Connor Thomas O’Brien in The Wheeler Centre 

    We laughed. How was it possible to inhabit a world of perfectly interlocking falsehoods? How did people fill the unknown and unknowable with so much fantastic nonsense?

     …Every few years, it seems, our lexicon fails us, and we are forced to formulate new shorthand to define exactly how we are being hoaxed online. In many cases, to define a scam is to drain it of its power, which is why new words are valuable: they promise a form of inoculation. It’s harder to be ‘spammed’ or ‘phished’, ‘catfished’ or ‘clickbaited’, once you can recognise and name the specific shape of each of these forms of deception.

    …perhaps what is new about ‘fake news’ is the almost complete blurring of lines between the two – the sense that falsehoods, some compatible and some contradictory, are now emerging from so many different parties that it’s impossible for anybody to pin down who is producing them and why.

There is, perhaps, another reason fake news retains its power over us, even as we are beginning to understand we are being scammed: it is intoxicating…The damage fake news wreaks is almost entirely in the form of social externalities, as our consensus fractures and we splinter into tribes hiding behind the bundle of untruths we happen to find most pleasing. Once that splintering occurs, it becomes very difficult to put the cat back in the bag. At some point, there is no shared reality to which we can return.

…Facebook had now ‘evolved’ beyond a space for entertainment and social interaction, and toward a primary space for the dissemination of public discourse.

…One of the perverse and unacknowledged pleasures of social networks is the ability to enter virtual spaces at will in which our beliefs – or delusions – are supported and repeated back to us. The narcotic effect of Facebook or Twitter resides at least partly in our ability to curate our social and political worlds, finding comfort in the plushness of our ideological cushions.

The role of publishers and editors as gatekeepers is as fraught as it has ever been, of course…It is the fact, moreover, that we know who is producing, editing, and publishing these pieces of ‘old school’ journalism that provides accountability. At the very least, we are provided with enough context to decide what is worth approaching sceptically.

  • The uncomfortable truth about Australian ‘diversity’ by Ruby Hamad…If this seems contradictory in a society that supposedly values diversity, academics Jon Stratton and Ien Ang explain that it is diversity itself that can act as a form of forced assimilation because, in emphasising the differences between cultures, multiculturalism “suppresses the heterogeneities existing within each culture”.

    In other words, while some expect minorities to assimilate into white Australian culture, others demand we conform to whatever white society imagines our own culture to be. This is usually something as exotically different to themselves as possible.

    And if we fail to conform to these expectations? Our identity is taken away. We are assumed to have fully “assimilated”.

The main essay in the book is about the various ways that women are silenced, and Solnit focusses upon the power of storytelling—the way that who gets to speak, and about what, shapes how a society understands itself and what it expects from its members. “The Mother of All Questions” poses the thesis that telling women’s stories to the world will change the way that the world treats women, and it sets out to tell as many of those stories as possible.

…For the women’s movement, storytelling first came into organized use, in the late nineteen-sixties, as so-called “consciousness-raising.

…It can be troubling to consider just how pervasive and not-new this tradition of feminist storytelling really is; after all, if telling these stories had the power to change the way women are treated, why do we still have so many stories to tell? In the nineteen-seventies, this became a point of debate within the feminist movement, with women arguing over whether consciousness-raising was essential or tangential to affecting political change. At one point, Betty Friedan referred to the consciousness-raising groups as “therapy,” which she did not mean as a compliment. The tradition of the feminist anecdote encourages women to make their voices heard, but it is easy to see this long history of tweeting, consciousness-raising, and speaking out not as a victory but as a defeat. Reading “The Mother of All Questions,” I found that Solnit’s faith in feminist storytelling, in the notion that amplifying women’s voices might truly have the power to transform the world, sometimes exceeded my own. It seems, instead, that there have been centuries of women raising their voices only to find that patriarchy is enduring and indifferent. After all, having the power to speak is not the same as a guarantee that you’ll be listened to.

  •  Out running Eshu: On finally seeking treatment for depression by Kim McLarin in Lithub Mental illness, mental disorder of any possible stripe, was definitely white folks’ mess. White people had nervous breakdowns; black folks just got tired of shit. White people had anxiety, black folks had nerves. Black folks got the blues sometimes, but only white people got clinically depressed. White people listened to Prozac. Black folks listened to their mother, their pastor, and God.

All of which is of probing, compelling interest to the observer part of me. To observe a thing is to wonder, to wonder is to contemplate, to contemplate is to determine, to determine is to understand. Not that understanding offers a solution or an escape.

The other part of me, the experiencing part, I struggle to name. “Depression,” yes, but how pedestrian and limited that word is. The “monster” I know is too melodramatic and un-ambivalent for such a name. (What did Joan Didion write in Slouching Towards Bethlehem? “I can’t get that monster out of my mind.”)

I try “spirit,” then “satyr,” then “trickster,” but none of those is right. Then it comes to me: Eshu. The trickster god of the Yoruba people. Sly, disruptive, unpredictable, and randomly either helpful or cruel, he serves as a messenger between the people and their gods. Eshu.

The other part of me, the observer who stands outside Eshu and watches him tricking me down into the depths, is easy to name. She’s the Writer. I’ve known her all along.

…This kind of help stems partly from good intentions but also from a pervasive societal belief that depression is really a kind of moral failure: a bad attitude, a shortage of will. (Percentage of people who think depression is a personal weakness according to the US Department of Health and Human Services: 54. Percent of black people who think so: 65.) In the United States of America, land of the eternally young and the eternally cheerful, complexity of feeling is suspect. Anyone disinclined toward the warm bath of relentless happiness risks being branded “negative.”

The deep American suspicion of melancholy and its contents is connected to the deep American suspicion of intellect, of complexity of thought and perspective, of wakefulness. Every institution in our culture, every Hollywood movie and major league game, every history lesson and Labor Day sale and political stump colludes to keep the dreamer dreaming, to tuck in the blanket and pat the heads. By default, depressives stand outside of this magical circle, observing. By necessity, they must be bullied back in.

I was probably forty years old before it occurred to me that not everyone felt things as deeply as I apparently do, that not everyone tumbled into canyons once or twice a month. I always just assumed other folks were better at leaping out.

*

One in ten Americans now takes a daily antidepressant medication. Among women in their forties and fifties the number is one in four. The percentage has skyrocketed since the late 1980s and climbs more every day. Pretty much everyone except the makers of Wellbutrin and Paxil (etc.) believes that this is far more than necessary, that physicians have over-diagnosed depression on a massive scale. The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Anti-Depressant Myth, a 2009 book by Irving Kirsch, expanded on his research that found antidepressants were no more effective than placebo in treating all but the most severe cases of depression. But a new statistical analysis of the data in 2012, led by a researcher at Yale and using a statistical technique known as growth-mixture modeling, found that three-quarters of patients actually did better on medication than placebo—while one-quarter were actually made worse.

Regardless of and despite the overprescribing, and the confusion around efficacy, most mental health professionals agree that many people who meet the requirements for major depression suffer without treatment. This is especially true among African Americans and Latinos, who access mental healthcare services at far lower rates than their white counterparts. Our white counterparts.

…Out of college and working I tried once or twice seeing a therapist. These were either kindly old white women in rocking chairs who had not a clue where I was coming from or glossy young white women in stirrup pants and glinting diamond rings who had even less of a clue. I rarely got past session one.

I feared the drugs were numbing my emotions, stealing my ability to write. Whether this was true or imagined (most physicians believe it takes two to six weeks for antidepressants to have an affect) mattered not. Writing was the very thing that had saved my life all those years: if writing went, I might well die. I stopped taking the drugs, muscled my way through that particular episode.

Muscling one’s way through depression is definitely an option. As long as one’s muscles hold out.

—*

Not all writers are tortured geniuses. I know many stable writers, levelheaded and content, writers who don’t drink or take drugs or require antidepressants, writers who use, without irony, words like “optimist.”

Still, there’s no denying some subtle connection between creativity and mental anguish. Several studies have confirmed the link (Andresen, 1987; Jamison, 1989; Ludwig, 1995) even if they fail to explain it. The largest study to date to examine the connection was conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. That study found that creative types, writers in particular, were overrepresented among people with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety syndrome, and substance abuse problems. Writers were also almost twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.

The question, of course, is why? What’s the chicken and what’s the egg in this riddle? Does who we are determine what we become, or does what we become shape who we are? Are people with a certain way of looking at the world—a way that develops or engenders or supports melancholy, depression, despair—more likely to become writers? Or does being a writer and thus obligated to stare straight at the reality of what it means to be human in this world bum people out?

The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa famously said, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” How much toll does it take to not look away? Ecclesiastes says: “And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.”

At the same time, research, including a 2013 study by a neuroscientist at the University of Helsinki published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that babies begin learning in the womb; newborns not only recognize and prefer the sound of their mother’s voice but the sounds and rhythms of the language she speaks. Babies actually cry in the accent of their mother; a German baby cries in a different pattern than a French or a Japanese child.

…All of which means we come out of the womb not as blank canvases but already primed. Not only a mother’s overall health and diet but also her stress levels—how anxious she is, how loved or unloved—pass on critical information to a fetus, laying down markers for what to expect from the world.

But there’s even more than that. I am fascinated by (what I can understand of) the exploding field of behavioral epigenetics, which posits that the experiences of our recent ancestors leave molecular residue which adheres to their DNA— and therefore to ours. In other words, not just physical but psychological and even behavioral tendencies really can be inherited. If your grandmother or even your great-grandmother struggled with depression because she escaped from the Holocaust, or narrowly avoided a massacre in My Lai, or was enslaved and raped repeatedly or watched her father being lynched—or was simply neglected and unloved during childhood—it matters to you and in you. Whether you know it or not.

The Writer is fascinated by epigenetics. Eshu just laughs.

—*

All I know is that I have lived inside this brain for half a century and things have changed.

I enter the cage of my feelings and find them tempered, curled into the corner like obedient dogs. I poke around inside my mind/brain like an archaeologist, assessing the remains. Eshu is gone.

My mind before was full of dark places and sharp corners, wide valleys and glorious peaks. Okay, not that many peaks but the ones that were, were truly glorious, full of fury and insight and consciousness. In the flatness of this new landscape is all of that just gone? I wonder, interested and troubled, though troubled in a remote and distanced way. Because: drugs.

What really has changed? It’s certainly not that life seems more meaningful than before. I still see no giant plan, no reason for everything that happens, no great truth uniting it all.

…It’s as if my emotions are just out of reach. I can see sadness and despair, see their sharp, familiar faces but only from a distance. They’re on the other side of the river, jumping up and down and waving but there’s no bridge between us. They cannot cross.

Is that good? Is that a good and normal thing? It feels somehow false, a simulacrum of living. A simulacrum of the emotions and depth I used to have. The Writer is ambivalent.

I do not mean to romanticize depression, and certainly not to romanticize suicide. Suicide devastates those left behind, a tornado through the heart I have seen in my family and among the children of friends. I do not mean to romanticize depression but neither do I mean to demonize it, or at least not to demonize mine. To demonize my depression is to diminish the last 30-so years of my life. To diminish both the suffering and the surviving, the pain and what crawled up from that pain. I do not mean to demonize my depression. Only, for my children, I mean to survive.

Still, sometimes I wonder: all those years of muscling. Did it make me a better person, somehow strengthen my moral or emotional fortitude? Would I have written more novels without Eshu hovering, or fewer? Better novels or worse? Would literature mean as much to me? Would I still love James Baldwin like I love my life?

My plan is to wean myself from the drug next summer. There is research to suggest that once a person has been lifted from the chasm of major depression things like meditation and exercise can help prevent a tumble back into the abyss.

Since the election, a debate has emerged on the left over the meaning of self-care…the term in its current form originated in communities of color and queer communities, its usage exemplified by Audre Lorde’s statement that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Now, especially in the runup to and aftermath of the recent election, self-care has entered the mainstream, as those who previously felt relatively comfortable in America suddenly feel anxious and in need of comfort. A variety of companies have capitalized on the cultural moment, using the term to sell luxury products, primarily to white women.

Unlike messages of self-care that come from activist or mental health communities, which often encourage social connection and attendance to basic needs, corporate self-care messages generally promote forms of relaxation.

It should come as no surprise that self-care, as coopted from black women and marketed largely to white women, has come to be synonymous with idleness. For white women, taking care of oneself has historically meant abstaining from work. When Charlotte Perkins Gilman experienced post-partum depression, her doctor prescribed the now-infamous “rest cure.” She was to “lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”

This prescription made Gilman so much worse that she began to talk of suicide. Eventually she separated from her husband, traveled, got better and wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a story about the horrors of lying in bed all day. Virginia Woolf was also prescribed the rest cure, also hated it, and also went on to write about it in disparaging terms, in “Mrs. Dalloway.”

As a white woman, I’m suspicious of an idleness that’s historically been both reserved for us — nonwhite women have been far less likely to be able to avoid working — and forced upon us by men who dictated what our brains could handle.

…To work, for me, is to care for the self by putting the self aside.

It is a privilege to be able to use work in this way. I had the freedom to choose my career, and it keeps me challenged and engaged. For many Americans, work is not like this. Many Americans cannot access paid work at all, or work long hours for less than a living wage. Many, especially women and especially women of color, work at jobs that primarily require them to care for others; laying the self aside may not feel particularly relaxing if you’re constantly forced to put others first. For many, self-care, if available at all, is that which replenishes energy drained by work.

Knowing all this, I want self-care through work to be a privilege women can ask for, and, if we are in a position to do so, advocate for on behalf of others. Some of the people who have cared for me the most in my life, who have helped me the most to care for myself, have been women who, at low moments for me, gave me exciting work to do and the time and space in which to do it.

Work, of course, is not merely distraction, and part of making work function as self-care is considering its impact. Especially as someone perhaps less affected by the Trump administration than others, I’m interested in ways to make my work both self-care and other-care. I don’t believe journalists “give voice to the voiceless” — everyone has a voice, and one of the best things we can offer is our ability to listen. I am trying harder than ever to listen now.

I also know that activists have long understood self-care as collective as well as individual…To work among them — to work, in a way, for them, as I work for anyone who wants to know and speak about the world — was to care for myself.

Self-care” rose as collective social practice in 2016 alongside national stress levels.

“Self-care” is newer in the American lexicon than “self-reliance,” but both stem from the puritanical values of self-improvement and self-examination. In 1984, Michel Foucault wrote in “The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3” that the notion dates back to the Greeks, noting that in the Alcibiades dialogues, Socrates advises a young man not to attempt political leadership until he has attended to himself. In Plato’s Apology, Foucault also noted, Socrates claims to have been sent by the gods to remind men to “concern themselves not with their riches, not with their honor, but with themselves and with their souls.” This theme was taken up by Seneca, Epictetus, and a host of early Christian thinkers, and provides the foundation of the modern religious and philosophical imperative to “cultivate the self” or “care for the soul.” More recently, the philosopher Stanley Cavell has argued that the “grand narrative of American individualism,” as it can be traced from William James to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, echoes this ancient ethos wherein society is organized around the self-cultivating individual.

Historically, in America, full citizenship has rested on an idea of the capacity for self-care. Samuel A. Cartwright, in his “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” from 1851, justified slavery by noting a “debasement of mind, which has rendered the people of Africa unable to take care of themselves.” The scholar Matthew Frye Jacobson points out in his book “Barbarian Virtues” that immigrants arriving to the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century were deemed “unfit citizens” because they lacked the “ideas and attitudes which befit men to take up . . . the problem of self-care and self-government.” The same arguments were made to deny women the vote. Consequently, self-care in America has always required a certain amount of performance: a person has to be able not only to care for herself but to prove to society that she’s doing it.

The #selfcare clickholes that have emerged in the last eighteen months are an extreme manifestation of this tendency…The tone of this endlessly renewing digital archive reflects an essential change in the performance of self-care that has taken place in the past fifty years or so. After decades of disuse, the term was repopularized in the seventies and eighties by people of color and queer communities—this time as a gesture of defiance. In 1988, the words of the African-American lesbian writer Audre Lorde became a rallying cry: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In this formulation, self-care was no longer a litmus test for social equality; it was a way to insist to a violent and oppressive culture that you mattered, that you were worthy of care. Lorde’s quote remains the mantra of contemporary #selfcare practitioners. “Many of us are poor, many of us are working ourselves into early graves,” the writer Evette Dionne, referring to black women, said in an interview with Bitch magazine last year. “And so saying that I matter, that I come first, that what I need and what I want matters I think is a radical act because it goes against everything that we’ve been conditioned to believe.”…Devin-Norelle told me that making self-care public is “informed by resistance toward the forces that tell me that people like me shouldn’t be.”

…When you endorse yourself as both vulnerable and worthy, especially when that endorsement feels hard, you can grant that same complex subjectivity to others, even to people whose needs and desires are different from your own. At its best, the #selfcare movement offers opportunities to see and care about vulnerability that’s unlike yours.

The irony of the grand online #selfcare-as-politics movement of 2016 is that it was powered by straight, affluent white women, who, although apparently feeling a new vulnerability in the wake of the election, are not traditionally the segment of American society in the greatest need of affirmation. Naturally, the movement has become a market.

….All of this might serve a rather different notion of American individualism than what Audre Lorde had in mind. The risk of promoting individual self-care as a solution to existential anxiety or oppression is that victims will become isolated in a futile struggle to solve their own problems rather than to collectively change the systems causing them harm.

I don’t talk about race with White people because I have so often seen it go nowhere. When I was younger, I thought it was because all white people are racist. Recently, I’ve begun to understand that it’s more nuanced than that.

To understand, you have to know that Black people think in terms of Black people. We don’t see a shooting of an innocent Black child in another state as something separate from us because we know viscerally that it could be our child, our parent, or us, that is shot.

The shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston resonated with me because Walter Scott was portrayed in the media as a deadbeat and a criminal- but when you look at the facts about the actual man, he was nearly indistinguishable from my own father.

Racism affects us directly because the fact that it happened at a geographically remote location or to another Black person is only a coincidence, an accident. It could just as easily happen to us- right here, right now.

Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.

White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.” Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.

What they are affected by are attacks on their own character. To my aunt, the suggestion that “people in The North are racist” is an attack on her as a racist. She is unable to differentiate her participation within a racist system (upwardly mobile, not racially profiled, able to move to White suburbs, etc.) from an accusation that she, individually, is a racist. Without being able to make that differentiation, White people in general decide to vigorously defend their own personal non-racism, or point out that it doesn’t exist because they don’t see it.

The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says “Racism still exists. It is real,” and a white person argues “You’re wrong, I’m not racist at all. I don’t even see any racism.” My aunt’s immediate response is not “that is wrong, we should do better.” No, her response is self-protection: “That’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything. You are wrong.”

Racism is not slavery. As President Obama said, it’s not avoiding the use of the word Nigger. Racism is not white water fountains and the back of the bus. Martin Luther King did not end racism. Racism is a cop severing the spine of an innocent man. It is a 12 year old child being shot for playing with a toy gun in a state where it is legal to openly carry firearms.

But racism is even more subtle than that. It’s more nuanced. Racism is the fact that “White” means “normal” and that anything else is different. Racism is our acceptance of an all white Lord of the Rings cast because of historical accuracy, ignoring the fact that this is a world with an entirely fictionalized history.

Even when we make shit up, we want it to be white.

And racism is the fact that we all accept that it is white. Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan in Star Trek. Khan, who is from India. Is there anyone Whiter than Benedict fucking Cumberbatch? What? They needed a “less racial” cast because they already had the Black Uhura character?
That is racism. Once you let yourself see it, it’s there all the time.

Black children grow up early to life in The Matrix. We’re not given a choice of the red or blue pill. Most white people, like my aunt, never have to choose. The system was made for White people, so White people don’t have to think about living in it.

But we can’t point this out.

Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we’re being angry. In fact, a key element in any racial argument in America is the Angry Black person, and racial discussions shut down when that person speaks. The Angry Black person invalidates any arguments about racism because they are “just being overly sensitive,” or “too emotional,” or- playing the race card. Or even worse, we’re told that we are being racist (Does any intelligent person actually believe a systematically oppressed demographic has the ability to oppress those in power?)

But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.

Ask any Black person and they’ll tell you the same thing. The reality of thousands of innocent people raped, shot, imprisoned, and systematically disenfranchised are less important than the suggestion that a single White person might be complicit in a racist system.

This is the country we live in. Millions of Black lives are valued less than a single White person’s hurt feelings.

White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.

But arguing about personal non-racism is missing the point.

Despite what the Charleston Massacre makes things look like, people are dying not because individuals are racist, but because individuals are helping support a racist system by wanting to protect their own non-racist self beliefs.

People are dying because we are supporting a racist system that justifies White people killing Black people.

Even when we’re talking about racism, we’re using racist language to make people of color look dangerous and make White people come out as not so bad.

Just let that sink in for a minute, then ask yourself why Black people are angry when they talk about race.

The reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad. Their actions as a person are not indicative of any broader social construct. Even the fact that America has a growing number of violent hate groups, populated mostly by white men, and that nearly *all* serial killers are white men can not shadow the fundamental truth of white male goodness. In fact, we like White serial killers so much, we make mini-series about them.

White people are good as a whole, and only act badly as individuals.

People of color, especially Black people (but boy we can talk about “The Mexicans” in this community), are seen as fundamentally bad. There might be a good one- and we are always quick to point them out to our friends, show them off as our Academy Award for “Best Non-Racist in a White Role”- but when we see a bad one, it’s just proof that the rest are, as a rule, bad.

This, all of this, expectation, treatment, thought, the underlying social system that puts White in the position of Normal and good, and Black in the position of “other” and “bad,” all of this, is racism.

And White people, every single one of you, are complicit in this racism because you benefit directly from it.

  • Contemporary Asian culture is the default context: it’s not an exotic extension of Eurocentric international programming, or some worthy aspect of “multiculturalism”. The festival foregrounds Asia as a crucial influence on our own culture: a significant feature is its commissioning of cross-cultural collaborations between Australian and Asian artists.

    Big-budget imports include the National Ballet of China’s production of the iconic 1964 communist ballet The Red Detachment of Women and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of music by Indian film composer AR Rahman. The Melbourne Writers Festival offered a two-day program of South Asian writing from the Jaipur Literature Festival. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image offers the Bombay Talkies exhibition, and works from Filipino and South Korean artists. There are countless smaller events in independent venues and a comprehensive program of talks.

    Asia TOPA springs from a premise that ought to be obvious: geographically, economically and socially, Australia has profound links to Asia. In a time of increasing instability in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia is caught between its alliance with an unpredictable US government and its trading and strategic ties with Asian governments, in particular that of China. Asian Australians make up 12% of our total population.

    As a nation we labour under an astonishing ignorance about the many complex and various cultures that comprise so much of our present and future. At a time when it has never been more urgent to understand our geopolitical context, there is a tide of populist xenophobia – the return of One Nation being only the most obvious symptom.

    Culture has a crucial role to play in broadening our understandings not only of one another but also of ourselves. It’s not a solution: for all the hot air about “soft diplomacy”, or the endless essays on the necessity for empathy, art can’t resolve complex social problems. Art’s influences are more subtle, working subtextually to transform, sometimes radically, unconsidered attitudes and assumptions.

    Art raises questions and illuminates experience, both individual and social, and creates enduring relationships within and between cultures. One of the interesting aspects of Asia TOPA is how it steps between art as a function of nationalistic public relations, and the more complex refusals and critiques of art itself.

    This is an opportunity not often taken up on our main stages, which, like our mainstream culture, are overwhelmingly Anglocentric. Anyone who goes to subscriber theatre can see it: audiences are white, ageing and well heeled, in striking contrast to the demographics we see in our city streets.

    There are a number of reasons for this, not least ticket prices that, due to poor government subsidy, are out of reach for many people.

    …Cultural barriers are equally forbidding. Asia encompasses some of the oldest and most sophisticated cultures on the planet, and yet it’s too often explicitly and implicitly marginalised in our performance culture…Even when non-white cultures are represented on Australian stages, they tend to be filtered through European consciousness… Minorities, or even majorities (in the case of women), still too often find themselves to be interesting adornments to cultures where the default is white, male and mostly Anglo-Saxon. Without the imprimatur of these legitimising mechanisms, the art is, by definition, considered non-mainstream. But with those imprimaturs too often there come mediations that compromise the work.

  • Terre interviews Terre: Attempting to answer common points of confusion by Terre Thaemlitz
      I always say PrideTM is like a lesson unlearned. It is about power sharing – a desire to place oneself safely within the systems of domination that brutalize us daily. I am not interested in power sharing. I am interested in divestments of power, and creating moments in which the functions of domination falter socially, economically, interpersonally, subjectively – if only for a moment. Pride is arrogant. Pride is boring. Pride is sneakily anti-social in that it prioritizes one over another, all the while touting the benefits of “community.” And, of course, today’s model of pride is completely market driven, inseparable from the “pink economy” through which we have come to reconcile our LGBT TM self images with capitalist process. Yes, there is stability and safety to be found in pride – and I get that so much of what happens in lesbian and gay communities, as well as in trans communities, is fundamentally driven by fear and a quest for safety – but the entire concept of “queer pride” just strikes me as a complete contradiction that only shows our capitulation to models of power shitting on us endlessly. We should be feeling rage and anger, not self-indulgent pride. I wish more queer and trans people could see how pride is just another closet.

Somewhere in trying to cross the cosmic divide that lay between being a six-year-old poet and a great writer, I stopped worrying about that. I accepted that I would never write like Faulkner or Eliot or Zola or Morrison or Murakami. I couldn’t write like Carey or Garner or Witting or Astley or White or Winton.

I want nothing more than to continue to write, but nothing is more difficult for me than writing.

In a world where, I believe, the pen is still mightier than the AK-47, it remains, no matter the challenges, our task to tell our stories. To reflect the human experience. To find what is common and what is uncommon. To explore the past, be with the present, to imagine the future. Whether that is in fiction or nonfiction is immaterial. It’s the work that speaks that matters. And if we do not foster our creativity when we hear it calling – whether in our children or as adults – then the world is poorer for it.

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