- The Problem With Rupi Kaur’s Poetry in BuzzfeedLauded by her readers as an authentic, intensely personal writer who isn’t afraid of baring her innermost trauma, she’s considered a much-needed voice of diversity in a literary scene that’s overwhelmingly white. But she’s also been accused of plagiarism and criticized for blurring individual and collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience.Kaur’s work brings up a bevy of questions: Is her poetic engagement with trauma valid as a defense against any critique of her style?… In an age when increasing attention is being paid to narratives of female trauma — particularly those communicated in a confessional vein — it can easily lead to the exploitation and commodification of those who experience said trauma.
…Her readers, however, do not mount a defense based on the quality of Kaur’s language; rather, they cite her openness about personal trauma in response to critiques of her work, suggesting that such honesty, particularly from a woman of color, exempts her from accusations of superficiality. That the debate has divided itself in such a way is a direct result of the poet’s own self-presentation: Whether on social media or in her poetry, Kaur has consistently marketed herself as an authentic writer who produces art free of artifice, and so any discussion of her work inevitably falls along these lines.Kaur’s comments on her own work and the motivation behind it, as well as her rejection of the literary establishment, only strengthen this impression of effortless authenticity — in true confessional style, Kaur refers to her book as a “baby” and calls writing her “most honest act of living.” Thus, when any suggestion of artificiality is preemptively shut down, it becomes impossible to discuss Kaur’s work in a way that goes beyond the existing dichotomy of vapidity versus raw honesty — and, as the moral high ground will always favor those who point to emotional authenticity over cynics who call the poet “corny,” this display of unpretentious openness ultimately benefits Kaur.
This, together with Kaur’s attempt in the collection to gesture to a universal South Asian female experience, marked by abusive relatives and fear, reveals her desire to speak not about herself, but on behalf of the entire “larger South Asian community and diaspora.” Her ambition to act as a spokesperson of a mythic South Asian female experience also extends beyond the present day and into the past. Referring to colonial violence, she says:
our trauma escapes the confines of our own times. we’re not just healing from what’s been inflicted onto us as children. my experiences have happened to my mother and her mother and her mother before that. it is generations of pain embedded into our souls.
Kaur thus intends for her poetry to do two things at once: milk and honey functions both as an extremely individual (and thus subjective) work, and as a manifesto that attempts to redress the perceived wrongs done to the South Asian female collective. As she says under the FAQ section, “we also challenge that narrative [of abuse] every single day. and this poetry is just one route for doing that.” However, simply extending personal confessions to an entire community, and then claiming to represent generations of trauma with these confessions, is not as straightforward as Kaur would have it.
In his 2007 book The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, academic Vijay Mishra writes of the new wave of upwardly mobile South Asian immigrants and their “uneasy postmodern trend towards collapsing diasporic (and historical) differences” in the postcolonial literature they produce. Kaur indeed seems to note little difference between her educated, Western, Indian-Canadian self and her ancestors, or even modern South Asian women of a similar age in rural Punjab. She suggests that the way all South Asian women move through life is universal, uniting herself with them by insistently returning focus to the South Asian female body as a locus of “shame and oppression” in her collection.
While more female South Asian voices are indeed needed in mainstream culture and media, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the self-appointed spokesperson of South Asian womanhood being a privileged young woman from the West who unproblematically claims the experience of the colonized subject as her own, and profits from her invocation of generational trauma. There is no shame in acknowledging the many differences between Kaur’s experience of the world in 2017 and that of a woman living directly under colonial rule in the early 20th century. For example: neither is any more “authentically” South Asian. But it is disingenuous to collect a variety of traumatic narratives and present them to the West as a kind of feminist ethnography under the mantle of confession, while only vaguely acknowledging those whose stories inspired the poetry.
Kaur’s balancing act does not only extend to her approach to trauma, but also to her engagement with literary diversity. Kaur describes her personal trajectory specifically as “the story of a young brown woman”: Rather than self-defining as a Canadian poet, she stresses her marginality as “a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant woman,” deliberately rejecting a mainstream Western identity in favor of alterity. Her vision of herself as an icon of diversity against hostile gatekeepers of literary prestige is evident.
In interviews, she emphasizes the importance of being a brown woman in traditionally white spaces…. Despite her political stance, however, Kaur’s work and public persona are carefully modulated in order to maximize her marketability to both a Western metropolitan readership and the grassroots social media audience to whom she owes her fame…[her] poems are vague enough to provide identifiable prompts for readers from a variety of different cultural environments, including — in many cases — white Western readers. Thus the collection remains relatable — and, crucially, marketable — to a wider audience, while still retaining an element of culturally informed authenticity that forms much of Kaur’s brand. The few poems that specifically address race are positioned facing each other, a brief interlude in a collection that is otherwise devoid of racial politics, and once again addresses a white, Western audience in their appeal for recognition of South Asian beauty and resilience.
Thanks to this social media strategy of sharing pieces with little to no context, Kaur is able to target two demographics: white Westerners who might be disinclined to buy books by minority writers, and her loyal grassroots fan base that includes a large contingent of young people of color across the world. She is thus able to maintain her brand of authenticity and relatability, but in different ways for different groups; to her Western metropolitan audience, she is “the patron saint of millennial heartbreak,” while to her marginal readers she is a representation of their desire for diversity in the literary world, despite rarely touching upon race in her work. This is not to reinforce the often-damaging expectation that writers of color must write only about racism in order to be successful, only that Kaur claims to be documenting a specifically South Asian experience that never materializes.
But is Kaur exclusively to blame here? It is important to consider the literary environment that has uplifted her while shutting out countless other writers from the margins. The Western metropolitan literary market’s demand for confessional writing that is colored by just the right amount of postcolonial authenticity, ensuring that it is exotic enough to be attractive without making white Western readers uncomfortable, plays a major part in her success. Kaur is marketable because she presents a homogeneous South Asian narrative while remaining just vague enough to appeal to the widest possible demographic.
That’s because her mass appeal lies in her perceived universality, with her fans often claiming that she vocalizes feelings they have not been able to put into words. Other minority writers, who trade in specifics and details, not broad-reaching sentiments and uncomplicated feminist slogans, would probably not achieve the same level of success. It is the paradox of the minority writer: the requirement to write in a way that is colored by one’s background, but is, at the same time, recognizable enough to a Western audience that it does not intimidate with its foreignness. It is only by eschewing complacency and holding such artists to account that mainstream media and culture will become more diverse: the kind of representation that, without compromise, accurately tells the stories of people of color around the world, and not just the stories that are the easiest to sell.
Who is lobbying for migrant writers? by Michelle Cahill in Sydney Review of Books
It’s been my experience that the Australian literary world and the journalists who cover it overlook the more complex perspectives and needs of those who are marginalised in our literary communities.
There are currently only two Australia Council-funded literary journals whose prime focus is diversity: Mascara Literary Review, which was co-founded by myself and Kim Cheng Boey in 2007, and Peril, a magazine whose focus is Asian Australian arts and culture. From the perspective of both Mascara and Peril, the deeply inscribed racial hierarchies that determine cultural privilege are just as important as the politics of funding independent and small to medium arts practice.
In its networks, establishments and canons, Australian literature operates as a white settler narrative. It claims a material and discursive space disproportionately over Aboriginal and other ethnicities, racialising their differences from the presumed universality of its own. Debates over gender and genre tend to overlook the marginalisation of non-dominant ethnicities. Yet it’s clear that superiority is assigned to the Northern European ideal of whiteness, through which difference is organized and ultimately appraised.
Consider how cultural capital is distributed and how authority is assigned. Consider the imbalance in remuneration for editing and media reviewing. Look closely at the literary prize industry – at arts administration, at the privileged and powerful hubs of academia.
To put it bluntly, lack of diversity is not a symptom of exclusivity in Australian media; it is the disease. The status quo essentially reflects a form of denialism. Our collective heritage can be traced to more than 270 different ancestries. Over half a million Australians identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. One in four of us were born overseas, and a further fifth of our population have at least one overseas-born parent. That these realities aren’t reflected in the media – the vehicle for much of our political discourse – is problematic.
It is probable that many in the media and the literary community would like existing cultural entitlements to remain intact. But at what cost? At present, migrant writers work hard for recognition but rarely benefit from the rewards offered by literary institutions to their white counterparts.
It is a mistake to separate the literary from the historical or legal discourses that have constructed nationality. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and the Multicultural Act of 1988 are defining landmarks for Australian culture. Yet to point to the complex dynamics of institutional racism is a fraught exercise – and so too is raising for discussion the subjective filters and veiled discriminations operating within the literary sector…Though Mascara is not structurally powerful, we can register dissent. But interceptionality is equally about mapping, marking the space of our absence as much as the space of our resistance.
Let’s not forget the lessons we have learned from foundational postcolonial theorists: we know from Spivak that subalterns cannot speak as sovereigns or without mediation; we know from Said that Western discourse created the Orient. The power of language to appear neutral can never be underestimated.
Cultural belonging is often supplementary, provisional and conditional for writers of colour. It needs to be constantly negotiated. Interceptions help us bend the cultural frame to actively re-position ourselves as readers and writers. By doing this we become subjects in the cultural narratives that would otherwise reduce us, tokenising or domesticating our differences. We express our anger, our cynicism, our humour, our fearlessness as a strength. We question the process by which meaning is conveyed and cultural communication is read. We question the power and legitimacy of who is made visible, or invisible; of what is sayable, or what is silenced. Such tactics are wholly pragmatic. Without activism, terms such as post-race and intersectionality remain abstract.
In Australia, the literary world benefits from the ripple effects that diverse participation offers, particularly as cultural exchanges with Asia and the global South thrive. Yet individual resources are being exploited at the very levels where sector development and stability is desperately required, placing journals like Mascara and Peril at risk.
To remedy the structural racism in Australian literature we need strategies designed to foster sustainability, development, investment and innovation. We need diversity statements and partnership programs at the level of peak state and federal organisations. Such policies have benefited Aboriginal and regional writers, as well as writers living with disability…we will continue to advocate for sustainability because without policies culturally diverse Australian writers cannot participate fairly in writing this country’s narrative.
‘Multicultural Australia is Mainstream Australia’: Calling for True Diversity in Our Media by Fatima Measham in Wheeler Centre
Earlier this year, I attended a select-entry workshop for ‘minority’ or ‘diverse’ writers run by a media organisation. The terms were used interchangeably… the outcomes raise questions around the authenticity of reaching out to ‘minority’ writers, whether workshops like this really address the impediments to more varied representation in the media, and how best to cultivate a robust, permanent mix of political and cultural commentators.
Whether on radio, in television, newspapers, magazines or online, we are far more likely to come across content-producers and characters who are, for want of a better word, white.It is difficult for me in this context to craft an argument for representation that is not self-serving…I write op-eds in a cramped market and would benefit from conditions that better account for diversity.The question is: aren’t I entitled to my own space in the public square, anyway? Surely it should no longer be remarkable for people who look like me to be there – and to be able to comment on matters at the centre, not just the periphery?In reality, we’d be lucky to get past the perimeter. It is not an imaginary barrier.‘There’s this rather strange public discourse led by old white men that exists in parallel to the reality of this country,’ says ABC broadcaster and editor Jonathan Green. ‘The power elite in opinion and discourse tend to be people like me. That becomes rather self-replicating, outside acts of tokenism.’
To put it bluntly, lack of diversity is not a symptom of exclusivity in Australian media; it is the disease. The status quo essentially reflects a form of denialism. Our collective heritage can be traced to more than 270 different ancestries. Over half a million Australians identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. One in four of us were born overseas, and a further fifth of our population have at least one overseas-born parent. That these realities aren’t reflected in the media – the vehicle for much of our political discourse – is problematic.
It is a problem because it leaves us with a patently false construction of our society. This isn’t a matter of vanity, as if people who look like me merely want to see themselves in the mirror. Anyone with a genuine interest in the truth, a commitment to nuanced debate and a willingness to engage with complexity should be disturbed by the lack of diversity among our opinion-makers and policy-setters.
When we’re talking about social and political issues, they’re not always issues that can be detached from people’s lives and their ability to live with dignity and meaning,’ says Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Racial Discrimination Commissioner. ‘If people who are writing about them have no sense of the human cost or what is at stake, then all those dimensions of public debate can go missing. What you have is a sterilised debate.’
How values are interpreted, including the weight apportioned to them, penetrates norms and policies such as the way we treat migrants, women and people with disability. So who is interpreting for us?
The answer should compel us to critically examine the barriers to participation for non-white writers and commentators. For instance, to what degree does their invisibility in the mainstream inhibit their involvement? ‘If you have a public sphere that does not contain diversity, the real risk is that you deter people from entering the realm,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘You end up perpetuating the status quo and possibly exacerbating it’.
There are also, quite broadly speaking, economic factors at play. Dr Soutphommasane points out that writing commentary is not lucrative, so the field tends to favour those with backgrounds that can withstand work that is not highly paid.
‘The important thing is to be able to have a conversation in the first place about these issues,’ says Dr Soutphommasane. ‘Quite often, even raising these questions is difficult and can provoke degrees of defensiveness.’
Born on Aboriginal land by Caitlin Prince in Griffiths
I WAS BORN on Whadjuk-Noongar land, not that I knew it… There weren’t Aboriginal families about, my parents didn’t have Aboriginal friends and there weren’t Aboriginal people in the local church. Aboriginal people had been counted as citizens since the 1967 referendum, but they were invisible citizens to me.
My first significant encounter with Aboriginal Australia came via a social studies class, where a teacher decided to show a documentary about the stolen generations. It was 1997; the Bringing Them Home report had just been released. I remember an Aboriginal woman crying on screen and a knot tightening in my stomach. Afterwards, when the lights came back up, a kid beside me called out, ‘Abos are drunks and they can’t look after their children.’ The room chorused in agreement. Still soggy in my tears I peered around me, stunned.
…Our parents’ understanding of Aboriginal Australia mostly ran along the lines of natives living on the land, hunting kangaroos with boomerangs and leaving handprints on rock faces. We supplemented this with our few interactions with real-life modern Aboriginals sitting around Forrest Chase Mall, yelling at one another. We presumed they were drunk.
Mine was the first generation to be taught about Australia’s genocide in school. It was, however, a curricular extra, an inessential part of our history a teacher might opt not to include – and many didn’t, focusing instead on genocide further afield in Nazi Germany. We didn’t cover pre-colonial Australia in any detail, or explore the history of massacres and resistance that ‘built’ our nation.
If this was the education of my generation, is it really that surprising that still, in 2014, Tony Abbott described Australia before white settlement as ‘nothing but bush’? Or that The Daily Telegraph could be outraged in 2016 by the use of the term ‘invasion’, calling it a ‘highly controversial rewriting of official Australian history’.
There are many things not spoken about in non-Aboriginal Australia that continue to be recounted in Aboriginal communities. In the dirt, sitting beside snoozing camp dogs, Aboriginal men and women told me what my own people had been cowardly enough to forget. In the Roper River region of the Northern Territory, a woman explained to me how the sudden extinction of languages there was the result of ‘hunting parties’. Shocked, I looked into her statement and found accounts not only of indiscriminate massacres of entire camps, but also the shooting of Aboriginal people for sport – ‘just for fun’ – in the Gulf country. As a woman, it was even more confronting to learn about the prevalence of rape and sexual slavery, with deaths of Aboriginal women from sexually related violence and sexually transmitted disease at times outnumbering all other causes of Aboriginal death.
…I see this in myself and in the people I work with, the struggle between keeping our eyes wide shut and opening them, venturing into an intimidating emotional swampland of remorse, anger and shame. Listening to Aboriginal people means facing not only the actions of ancestors, but our own ongoing participation in a discriminatory Australia.
University students coming out to communities have to admit they were told about the plight of Aboriginal people. They covered it in their Indigenous cultures unit. They flicked through pages, answered reflective questions and collected credit points – eyes wide shut. Yet when they were out in the community, and when the images from inside Don Dale Youth Detention Centre were broadcast, many of them ended up in tears.
. I wrestle with my relationship to it all as a descendent and beneficiary of colonisation. I am both an outsider to Indigenous experience and inextricably linked by history and ongoing politics. I feel a longing to connect to something distinct and valuable in these Aboriginal-owned places that I can’t quite articulate and don’t yet understand, but can sense. It’s a complicated emotional experience. No wonder so many Australians just keep their eyes wide shut.
The cultural and social complexities of a remote community would be best explained by the people who live there, but communication between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people is often so poor that this information doesn’t get shared. Non-Aboriginal people are used to asking direct questions in quick succession, to get the answers they need. They will often interrupt one another, sometimes to argue or contradict the speaker, but often just to agree with emphatic statements like ‘I know!’ This is at odds in a remote Aboriginal community where conversations depend on established relationships, are circular, non-conclusive and vague, and largely negotiated through silence and body language.
- ‘Kids are gross’: on feminists and agency by Caitlin McGregor in Overland
This is just to say by Eloise Grills (tinyletter)
- The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter“The simple fact that a book contains repugnant ideas is not in itself, in my opinion, a reason to condemn it,” Smith wrote. “Literature has a long history as a place to confront our ugliness, and its role in provoking both thought and change in thought is a critical one.”…Many members of YA Book Twitter have become culture cops, monitoring their peers across multiple platforms for violations. The result is a jumble of dogpiling and dragging, subtweeting and screenshotting, vote-brigading and flagging wars, with accusations of white supremacy on one side and charges of thought-policing moral authoritarianism on the other.
Representatives of both factions say they’ve received threats or had to shut down their accounts owing to harassment, and all expressed fear of being targeted by influential community members — even when they were ostensibly on the same side.
…None of this comes as a surprise to the folks concerned by the current state of the discourse, who describe being harassed for dissenting from or even questioning the community’s dynamics. One prominent children’s-book agent told me, “None of us are willing to comment publicly for fear of being targeted and labeled racist or bigoted. …Authors seem acutely aware of that fact, and are tailoring their online presence — and in some cases, their writing itself — accordingly. One New York Times best-selling author told me, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid for my career. I’m afraid for offending people that I have no intention of offending. I just feel unsafe, to say much on Twitter. So I don’t.” She also scrapped a work in progress that featured a POC character, citing a sense shared by many publishing insiders that to write outside one’s own identity as a white author simply isn’t worth the inevitable backlash. “I was told, do not write that,” she said. “I was told, ‘Spare yourself.’
…The diversity-in-publishing debate is very much at the root of the outrage when it comes to campaigns like the one against The Black Witch, reflecting larger dissatisfaction with an industry that’s overwhelmingly white at just about every level. The multiyear push for more diverse books has yielded disappointing results — the latest statistics show that authors of color are still underrepresented, even as books about minority characters are on an uptick — and while the loudest critics demanded that The Black Witch be dropped by its publisher, others simply expressed exhaustion at the ubiquity of books like it. In a representative tweet, author L.L. McKinney wrote, “In the fight for racial equality, white people are not the focus. White authors writing books like #TheContinent or #TheBlackWitch, who say it’s an examination of racism in an attempt to dismantle it, you. don’t. have. the. range.”
…but another publisher at a big five imprint has a simple reason for staying out of the fray — “I truly don’t find those conversations of value, and I hope an author would feel the same” — as well as a message for readers like Sinyard who feel their campaigns deserve a response: “Get upset! I would say, continue to go get upset. It’s entirely your right. But if this were my author and we were having this conversation, I’d say, don’t respond, or block them. It’s not their position. It’s not their role. They are a reader. If they don’t like it, fine. As a publisher we are here to curate, defend, and protect fiction — the author’s ability to create as he or she feels fit, to tell the stories that he or she feels fit, and to not let the book be affected by outside opinion except those who are close enough to advise on story.”
Among the book-buying public, though, that parade may be mostly passing unnoticed. The scandals that loom so large on Twitter don’t necessarily interest consumers; instead, the tempest of these controversies remains confined to a handful of internet teapots where a few angry voices can seem thunderously loud. Still, some publishing professionals imagine that the outrage will eventually become powerful enough to rattle the industry. Another agent, who describes himself as devoted to diversity in publishing since before it became a mainstream concern, is ambivalent about the current state of affairs.
“I think we’re in a really ugly part of the process,” he says. “But as we’re trying to encourage a greater diversity of readers and writers, we need to be held accountable for our mistakes. Those books do need to get criticized, so that books which are written more mindfully, respectfully, and diligently become the norm.”
It’s also a process in which tough questions lie ahead — including how callout culture intersects with ordinary criticism, if it does at all. Some feel that condemning a book as “dangerous” is no different from any other review, while others consider it closer to a call for censorship than a literary critique.
New World Disorder by Hannah Black in ArtForum
This feeling of belatedness is always beginning to give way to the evident fact that the passage of time alone, in either personal or collective historical life, is not enough to fix catastrophes. For a wound to heal, its cause has to stop. Thus transatlantic slavery, to give an important example, keeps insisting on its unhealed historical reality…The disaster has already happened, and this is all aftermath.
For all the comparisons to European fascist dictators, a very uncomfortable truth is appearing in wider view: The USA is a white supremacist state since its foundation; the USA is white supremacy in action, alongside its allies, like my home country of Britain. Previous presidents have invoked an inhuman humanist ideology even while killing, imprisoning, disabling, and impoverishing millions. Trump’s shit feels new because he does not pretend to believe in the things these other presidents pretended to believe in: due process, checks and balances, careful paraphrases, inclusion. Because all these things have comfortably coexisted with horror, my anxiety at their collapse feels complicated, like I thought I’d pulled up all the roots of my habitual attachment to the present social order but find them still there, springing back like weeds, a truth about myself. Yet, despite the apparent novelty of all-American fascism, Trump’s shit feels old because it is old. Capitalists have been eating us alive for a very long time.
These monstrous times are primarily creations of the white imaginary…When and where the glossy surface of capitalism frays, the apocalyptic and communal tendencies that are its contradictory engine get exaggerated. At all moments of capitalism, even without a Trumplike goblin to fan the flames, it rolls along at a frenetic pace of death-production, trapping people in poverty, labor, and disease.
If goodness is a category that cannot comfortably include the perpetrators of genocide, mass incarceration, and slavery, then there has never been a good president, although some do more violence than others. Some people have known this forever, but knowledge is complicated and doesn’t proceed naturally from either identity or experience.
What once appeared to me as ancient history giving a shimmer of interest to the family tree—the camp, the ship, the plantation—lately reveals itself as a continual unfolding in the present and the future. No one is inherently safe from the violence of capitalism, and whiteness is a violently upheld dream that safety is real. What once appeared as to-come—the fascist dystopia—in fact lies behind and all around us. Some people are smart or hurt enough to have known since forever how nothing has ever stopped happening, that the genocides and exclusions are ongoing and as urgent as when they were first enacted. How are the rest of us to grasp this gridlocked time? To understand the nature of capitalist society we must understand its foundational and ongoing violences. To understand our relation to the governments who issue our passports and regulate our lives, we collectively reencounter a deep and long-ago pain, as if for the first time. Though it can feel apocalyptic, this pain or fear of pain is not the end of the world, because there has never been a world: The image of a coherent world, a supplement to the ideology of whiteness, is upheld in the violence of the border, the nation, even the law. Let it go. In place of a world there is the disorganized and proximate texture of the everyday; there are close friends and closer enemies. There is the particular body. There is this room.
…Environmentalists make much of the long historical time in which the full expanse of human life from the earliest peoples up until now has all taken place in the blink of an eye. In this long time, we are still reeling—a word that means both a dance and the preparation for a fall—from the catastrophes of transatlantic slavery and colonialism. This atmosphere of aftermath has been theorized by Christina Sharpe as in the wake of the slave ship. This prevails literally as our presence here, which comes after the slave ship, after the Holocaust, after the settler colony, and so on.
- The Unbearable Whiteness of CanLit
“Writing blackness is difficult work…we are an absented presence under erasure.”
“Blackness in Canada is situated on a continuum..that is, black people are either erased from Canadian history and identity or they are “hyper-visible”
“CanLit fails to transform because it refuses to take seriously that Black literary expression and thus Black life is foundational to it. CanLit still appears surprised every single time by the appearance of Black literary expression and Black life….It reveals how the promise of CanLit—to offer a space for black voices—has failed to be kept. To move forward, CanLit must take seriously the challenges being made by black scholars and writers. This is partially about access to resources: welcoming scholars who will reinvigorate the field with new questions and ideas. This is also about challenging old conceptions of the canon.We also know that repeated incidents of exclusion followed by calls for “conversation” are exactly what brought us to a moment where scholars like Walcott see quitting CanLit as a necessary course of action.But while we understand Walcott’s frustrations, we believe CanLit is worth fighting for. What is urgently needed is sustained scholarly engagement with black literary expression in Canada. In this regard, we take inspiration from Black Lives Matter’s slogan describing its work against the erasure of black histories: “May we never again have to remind you.” May we never again have to be reminded that black literature is part of Canadian literature and that CanLit must rid itself of its anti-blackness.
- Unceded: Contesting the national, or Australia is a foreign country
The nation is a contested site, just as Australia may be a foreign country. It is possible to speak of multiple nations within the Australian state, abutting each other, and of flashpoints along borders occasionally marked by incursion. Australia is a polymorph, a site always under construction.We can manufacture a singular identity, we can codify what it means to be an Australian, and we can exclude those who threaten or complicate the national state of mind.Australia is a shadow, at best, immaterial, a wraith. It plays out like an in-joke; no-one is quite sure when to laugh, the heart of it known only to those who utterly believe in it. It takes material form in the exercise of power. Indeed, the nation is the fulfilment of power. But in the sepulchre where the faithful bow down is a broken mirror….The nation, produced in the western mind after the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutionary wars, is an assumed identity that has been manufactured for us. Citizenship of the nation is often a mistake of birth. It is a mass delusion; we adhere to the nation to avoid the risk of exclusion or for an instinctive fear of chaos. In the morbid dread of terror we can designate the extent of citizenship and impose limits on its privileges. Nationality itself is a privilege that can be revoked. In the political rhetoric and historical amnesia we might forget that Australia was born in cruelty and violence and dispossession that unfolded over generations…This mythos, of the poor and landless set upon the sea, finds its parallel today – its endgame – in offshore detention centres, articulated in acts of self-harm and immolation by those we cast as non-citizens.
…The nation is by no means a singular, benign or shared concept to which we all subscribe. It is a matter of negotiation. And there are multiple ways to negotiate power and its fulfilment in the nation. The rule of law is a social construction designed to guarantee certain rights while curtailing others. In exchange for our protection, for the sake of order, we cede to the nation. To be free, we must be constrained. But do we ever pledge allegiance to the nation, if we are born here? How do we express our citizenship?
The nation is an intellectual space, constructed in our minds but imagined collectively; although there will always be disjuncture, ruptures and dissonances. Australia’s national identity is manufactured, inscribed and enacted in certain myths, such as Gallipoli and, to a lesser extent, Kokoda. They are fixed, immutable, sacral. When the corporeal body of the nation – its landmass and borders – is under attack in wartime, myth-makers do better. In the darkness and torpor of blind fear, tilting at shadows, we are paralysed; inertia and entropy are the metaphors of fear.
But humanity is inherently disordered, complicated by individual desires. Any social contract a nation might conclude with its citizens can be outstripped by the economic interests of corporations whose wealth and power exceed those of some developing nations in this particular phase of late capitalism.
The lines along which the nation defines itself are in perpetual flux; what other nation on earth territorialises a beach in Turkey, finding there the moment of its true birth rather than in invasion, genocide and land theft? It is precisely because national identity cannot safely be forged on a continent that is so stained, on sites so contested.
The nation into which I was born – by mistake of birth, fortuitously or not – has its counterpoint, its opposite, in the predication of terra nullius. And although it was never encoded in law, as such, it is deeply embedded in the national imaginary, in the national psyche. In fact, without it, nothing we now attribute to the nation would have been possible – even its abrogation in the Mabo decision. To create, they had to nullify. If you declare that everything that was here before you came was void, you can build your nation safely. If you cannot completely and utterly destroy those who occupied the land before you came, you can drive them away, force them into foreign parts or missions and reserves set aside for the purpose, evict them and thus make them landless.
In this war of nullification, when every other weapon has been spent in the physical war, one of the methods you can deploy to defend your rhetorical ground is to manipulate, shape and distort the representation of the first people.
If you can exercise control over them, you can write the history you prefer. In the absence of a representation that they can control, they will literally disappear.
The theft of land is the nation’s original sin, and we are haunted by it. The sovereign power in these transactions is the British Crown, expressed in the nation, the Commonwealth of Australia. The extraordinary project to document the economic history of slavery finds that the inherited wealth of many Britons, including most of the ruling class, draws down on a historical debt, to the human cargo of the slave ships. (5) In the same way, the wealth of the Australian nation draws down on the debt to the first people of this continent. The forgetting is sedative; and yet truth is an aesthetic value.
… In a multivalence of signs, like a spectrum of pulsing radio waves, we can find the frequency that seems attuned to our individual desires or fears. When contemporary art is warehoused in biennales, bewilderment and utter confusion are possible. Perhaps this multivalence, the raised voices of Others, is the fear and disaffection that drives recent ideological turns; the decision by a majority of British voters to leave the European Union and the election of the economic protectionist Donald Trump in the US are, on the face of it, challenges to a borderless, globalised world. And globalisation is a cultural as well as economic phenomenon. The National 2017might expose the fault lines in any fixed notion of Australian national identity and the tectonic moves that are currently underway in global political discourse.
- The Waters by Sam Twyford-Moore in Kill Your Darlings In the same way that Fanning and Winton turn away from the ocean, so too do we turn our backs on really approaching, from an intellectual point of view, the very water that defines us. As an island nation girt by the stuff, as the crusty anthem goes, Australia must also somehow reconcile with it, and yet perhaps it is fear that prevents us from doing so.Every time we look out to the ocean, we must consider what is contained within, and what it might carry with it on its surface. Our national political conversation has been fixated on the idea of boats for over a decade now. So, water is political; photography, too.Documentary photography is no gesture of standing by idly; it contains within it editorial participation…Sontag was mostly concerned about the desensitisation of the public to images of war as represented in the mass media. But what about the effects of a self-published work that blurs art and journalism, and which doesn’t directly provide images of the atrocities?
Kraus is adept at speaking to the insecurities of younger women. When she published I Love Dick, it was immediately embraced by women who felt disrespected as artists and driven crazy by the power imbalances in their romantic relationships with men. Kraus explored what women had long suspected: That these two phenomena are somehow related.
Chris: You know, I didn’t set out to write a book when I started writing those letters. That was a very primary experience, and I just wrote the letters. But as soon as I did see it as a book and start to compose it as a book and name the characters and put them in the third person, it was a style choice. I thought I was making like a late-20th-century version of an 18th-century sex comedy. I was looking for laughs.
Ann: It’s interesting to think about your work as coming from a personal archive. I think about the vast digital detritus that I have: the drafts of emails, the meaningless tweets. Maybe it’s more common now for women to make art based on that, or to use that as an inspiration.
Chris: Well, I would never have called that material a personal archive. It was just my stuff that I was carrying around. But, you know, there are a lot of precedents for that. I was a huge reader of collections of correspondences. I was fascinated by reading people’s letters. And also diaries. When you read the complete works of somebody, you get interested in all the tangential materials and how they dovetail, so it never seemed to me such a stretch to be pulling these bits of materials into the novel.
People are so lost and so starved for any sense of meaning or purpose. Any fixed value. And, I mean, all the pundits say that’s why Trump won. There’s something so deeply wrong with both sides, with the smugness of the neoliberal kind of mainstream Democrat Party and something so deeply wrong with the sort of vicious hatred and polarization of the Republican wing.
Things are not subjective. There’s good and there’s bad, and those things are not negotiable. It’s not my good versus your good; there’s a good that’s larger than us. And I think that’s something that people are longing for. In a way that goes back to work that I did on the philosopher Simone Weil. She wrote a lot about these same issues and themes in the 1930s
hardly anybody supports themselves as a writer. So if you take a closer look at how people in the culture world are supporting themselves, you’ll see a lot of family money behind the scenes. And somehow, people have been very critical and snarky about the real-estate thing, as if I’m a wealthy person. They would never dare to ask where the money that went to make the trust came from.
Ann: So many art careers are built on money that people don’t talk about.
Chris: When I wrote I Love Dick, very early on I felt like my goal was to put everything on the table that was transacted under the table. There’s this kind of gender romantic comedy on the surface of it, but really it’s about power. And not even personal dynamic power; more like economic power and cultural-politics power, and how things are transacted. I think the book asks literally in the middle, “Who gets to speak and why is the only question.”
I got a really inside view on how careers are made. And that doesn’t really have a lot to do with the work; it has a lot more to do with how these people relate to power, the friendships that they cultivate, the protectors that they find.
The change between that era and our era, I think, is on the plus side it’s so much more pluralistic and there are so many more channels that people can move through. And information about work and culture spreads so much faster, so something really can come out of nowhere. And a lot of important and smart people will be talking about it to each other. The access was much more controlled, I think, in Kathy Acker’s era. So the pluralism is a good thing. The downside of the pluralism is that everything cycles through so much more quickly and feels so much more expendable.
There are an awful lot of women writing, and an awful lot of women writing great work, but that niche still remains a very demographically narrow white, male, upper-middle-class niche. That niche of high seriousness.
Certainly that’s something I’ve been fighting against since I’ve started to be aware and culturally active. When I started the Native Agent series for Semiotext(e) in the ‘90s it was with the idea of presenting a female first-person that could be as universal as a male first-person. I mean, all through the literature it’s all autobiographical. It’s all this male “I” talking about shit. But as soon as it’s a woman talking about shit, she’s only talking about herself and her problems. That all comes back to her. So yes, that’s been a mission of mine when I started my work with Semiotext(e).
- To Avoid Psychic Isolation, Read This Amazing Interview With Jackie Wang
“If it weren’t for my feminist crew there would be no way for me to confirm that what I think and experience is valid or real. It must be really hard for people who don’t have that because the psychic isolation can drive you insane….”.Self-doubt is usually the point of departure for a lot of my work. I always have to write through that doubt. Sometimes I sit down with an idea for an essay, and I’m so paralyzed by self-doubt and that I have to incorporate the doubt into whatever I’m working on in some way, or else I can’t move beyond it. I resent that I have to do this, but I also question the motivations for bracketing that experience because the excision of self-doubt is political (in that it’s gendered and racialized). And a lot of women are plagued by self-doubt and specifically anxiety around writing or asserting any kind of authority in their writing. Owning that doubt can be a political gesture.In Against Innocence you write about white space or colonized space as a place where certain stories just don’t matter or aren’t interesting. It seems this fraught relationship you have to yourself and to producing your views of the world are so intimately connected to that. That is the experience.I guess it can be generative in some ways. I’ve always been suspicious of writers that feel comfortable in language, which is why I’ve been drawn to Samuel Beckett, Hélène Cixous, Clarice Lispector. All these authors have a fraught relationship to language. Kafka as well.
Really hating the writing and still having to do it.
Right. There’s this Samuel Beckett quote, “The writer is like a fetus trying to do gymnastics.” Writing is the impossible yet necessary task. In some ways maybe this friction is the lifeblood of my writing, this struggle to utter anything. Maybe I resent people who don’t have self-doubt because they seem like they can get to a place that I can’t because I have to wade through the quagmire of self-hatred before I can even begin to start doing the thinking and the work that I want to do.
I don’t really put my hopes in the literary world. I’m never surprised when it comes out that there’s all this sexism in it. I have one foot in the literary world and one foot in another world, the political world maybe. I’ve never really felt that the forms of life that I am looking for or that I’m trying to create will emerge out of the literary world. Oftentimes I feel like it’s full of people who only care about social capital. There’s nastiness in any world or subculture but I never really felt that the people in the literary world are my people even though I probably spend more time in a literary context than anywhere else. Maybe my disidentification with the literary establishment enables me to maintain healthy distance.
- What do you find to be the greatest challenge in discovering new art/artists in the current cultural landscape?I am allergic to the internet, which makes it very hard for me to be a part of the literary milieu, or the world at large. I feel too porous to engage with the internet too much—it makes me totally insane. My head gets filled up with nonsense and then there’s no room to notice the sky or wonder if time lapse footage of geraniums blooming might look something like exploding fireworks. Of course the answer is probably on the internet (this is not quite what I imagined https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQYjZRuAay0), but it’s by not using the internet that the thought can exist at all. In other words, I try to maintain space inside me that is empty or isn’t wholly consumed by the input-reaction feedback loop of digital culture. Silence is my church, the library, a sacred refuge from the onslaught of stimuli that makes me feel like a shuttlecock getting tossed around in a techno-capitalist game of badminton. No, I want to extend the emotion. To sit with things. I’m not saying that everyone who uses the internet lives on the surface of things. It is precisely because I have a hard time focusing that I need such extreme conditions to go to the deep place, to feel myself real and alive and in touch with the mystery of everything swirling around me.How do you build and/or define your community?
Overall I feel a kinship with outcasts, lost souls, wayward daughters, feral poets, emotional misfits…Anyone bent, uncontrollable, excessively desirous of life. Fringe dwellers. Dream seekers. Reality breakers. The details of our interests hardly matter. What I’m talking about is a comradeship formed in non-conformity—belonging in the shared experience of displacement, of not belonging. A community of lone wolves and aliens (odd girls).
…The conversation moves with ease from the everyday to the “global.” Politics is always imagined according to a range of scales: cellular, psychological, social, economic, earthly, cosmic—even the “invisible” must be thought (what is imperceptible or not-yet-thought). Everything that is said comes from a place. Here are women who are intellectually sincere: genuinely curious and concerned with figuring shit out and not trying to prove anything. Not trying to master knowledge for the sake of mastery…
We have been made by this fucked up world. And so, are flawed. But we interact in good faith. It’s hard to know why we do what we do but we are smart enough to admit when we are wrong.
- The Search for Decolonial Love: An Interview with Junot Díaz
I was so pleased when, during your lecture yesterday, you stated—clearly and unapologetically—that you write about race.
I decided to focus on your story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie).” And because the story is about the way race, class, and gender are mutually-constituted vectors of oppression, I decided to read it using the theoretical framework developed by the women of color who were writing in the 1980s and 90s. Honestly, though, I feel like I am swimming against the current—lately, I have seen a forgetting and dismissal, in academia, of their work; it is as if their insights are somehow passé. But it seems right to me to read your work through the lens of women of color theory.Junot Díaz: Absolutely. Much of the early genesis of my work arose from the 80s and specifically from the weird gender wars that flared up in that era between writers of color… for those of us present at the time they were both dismaying and formative. This was part of a whole backlash against the growing success and importance of women-of-color writers—but from men of color. Qué irony. The brothers criticizing the sisters for being inauthentic, for being anti-male, for airing the community’s dirty laundry, all from a dreary nationalist point of view…for me, what was fascinating was that the maps these women were creating in their fictions—the social, critical, cognitive maps, these matrixes that they were plotting—were far more dangerous to the structures that had me pinioned than any of the criticisms that men of color were throwing down. What began to be clear to me as I read these women of color—Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Anjana Appachana, and throw in Octavia Butler and the great [Cherríe] Moraga of course—was that what these sisters were doing in their art was powerfully important for the community, for subaltern folks, for women writers of color, for male writers of color, for me. They were heeding [Audre] Lorde’s exhortation by forging the tools that could actually take down master’s house. To read these sisters in the 80s as a young college student was not only intoxicating, it was soul-changing. It was metanoia.Think about that final line in [Frantz] Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks: “O my body, make me always a man who questions!” I remember reading these sisters and suddenly realizing (perhaps incorrectly but it felt right to me at the time) that women-of-color writers were raising questions about the world, about power, about philosophy, about politics, about history, about white supremacy, because of their raced, gendered, sexualized bodies; they were wielding a genius that had been cultivated out of their raced, gendered, sexualized subjectivities. And what they were producing in knowledge was something that the world needed to hear in order to understand itself, that I needed to hear in order to understand myself in the world, and that no one—least of all male writers of color—should be trying to silence. To me these women were not only forging in the smithies of their body-logos radical emancipatory epistemologies—the source code of our future liberation—but also they were fundamentally rewriting Fanon’s final call in Black Skin, White Masks, transforming it into “O my body, make me always a woman who questions . . . my body” (both its oppressions and interpellations and its liberatory counter-strategies). To me (and many other young artists and readers) the fiction of these foundational sisters represented a quantum leap in what is called the post-colonial-slash-subaltern-slash-neocolonial; their work completed, extended, complicated the work of the earlier generation (Fanon) in profound ways and also created for this young writer a set of strategies and warrior-grammars that would become the basis of my art. That these women are being forgotten, and their historical importance elided, says a lot about our particular moment and how real a threat these foundational sisters posed to the order of things.
White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us.
Why these sisters struck me as the most dangerous of artists was because in the work of, say, Morrison, or Octavia Butler, we are shown the awful radiant truth of how profoundly constituted we are of our oppressions. Or said differently: how indissolubly our identities are bound to the regimes that imprison us. These sisters not only describe the grim labyrinth of power that we are in as neocolonial subjects, but they also point out that we play both Theseus and the Minotaur in this nightmare drama…this movement towards liberation required the kind of internal bearing witness of our own role in the social hell of our world that most people would rather not engage in. It was a tough praxis, but a potentially earthshaking one too. Because rather than strike at this issue or that issue, this internal bearing of witness raised the possibility of denying our oppressive regimes the true source of their powers—which is, of course, our consent, our participation.
PM: You said that people of color fuel white supremacy as much as white people do; that it is something we are all implicated in. You went on to suggest that only by first recognizing the social and material realities we live in—by naming and examining the effects of white supremacy—can we hope to transform our practices.
JD: How can you change something if you won’t even acknowledge its existence, or if you downplay its significance? White supremacy is the great silence of our world, and in it is embedded much of what ails us as a planet. The silence around white supremacy is like the silence around Sauron in The Lord of the Rings…And yet here’s the rub: if a critique of white supremacy doesn’t first flow through you, doesn’t first implicate you, then you have missed the mark; you have, in fact, almost guaranteed its survival and reproduction. There’s that old saying: the devil’s greatest trick is that he convinced people that he doesn’t exist.
- The Work you Do, the Person You are by Toni Morrison in The New Yorker
one day, alone in the kitchen with my father, I let drop a few whines about the job. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. No “Oh, you poor little thing.” Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”
That was what he said. This was what I heard:
- Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.
- You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
- Your real life is with us, your family.
- You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.
I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home.
BUSINESS OR PLEASURE By Chris Ware in the New Yorker
THE HARDWORKING IMMIGRANT WHO MADE GOOD by Akhil Sharma in The New Yorker
The fact that I knew nothing was immediately clear. After a few interviews in which I saw my interlocutor flick his eyes over my résumé and register that I had no relevant experience, I decided to start lying.
I began telling interviewers that throughout high school and much of college I had worked night shifts at 7-Elevens and gas stations. I came up with this lie because I was Indian and was used to being seen through stereotypes—used to being asked if I spoke English or if I was studying to be a doctor. The reason I chose this particular lie was that people love the hardworking-immigrant-who-makes-good narrative. It allows them to feel that they live in a benign, meritocratic world, and to believe, in a back-channel way, that they are deserving of their success. Also, bankers work bone-crunching hours. In my night-shift history, my interviewers would see evidence that I was a tireless employee.
Before the lies, the people who interviewed me had rarely revealed what they felt; now they laughed and sighed along with what seemed like recognition, almost as if they were seeing their own hardships in my tales. That was the sort of self-pitying, self-aggrandizing wretches we were.
I started getting callbacks. I was flown to New York for daylong interviews, in which eventually I would come up against someone who didn’t care about my time at 7-Eleven. All that this man—it was invariably a man—quite reasonably cared about was whether I could make his life easier by getting work done. He’d ask me what method of valuation could be best massaged to show an earnings-accretive merger in a financial model. He’d ask about the difference between financial and tax accounting. Usually, the sort of person who asked such questions was an associate or a junior vice-president, who worked closely with the nitty-gritty of financial modelling. Inevitably, that person would tell the powers that be, “Hey, this guy is an idiot!,” and I would be rejected.
Finally, one day, I was in New York for a series of interviews and the junior vice-president I was supposed to see was called into a meeting. I knew right then that I would be offered the job. When I got the call, I accepted on the spot. I was smart enough to understand that I had got lucky. “Do you know when I get the signing bonus?” I asked.
- We are the Product by John Lanchester in LRB
Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them. In Thiel’s summary, the idea is ‘that imitation is at the root of all behaviour’.
Girard was a Christian, and his view of human nature is that it is fallen. We don’t know what we want or who we are; we don’t really have values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare. We are homo mimeticus. ‘Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.’ Look around, ye petty, and compare. The reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy. ‘Facebook first spread by word of mouth, and it’s about word of mouth, so it’s doubly mimetic,’ Thiel said. ‘Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.’ We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.
The view of human nature implied by these ideas is pretty dark. If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want – if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations – then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves. For all the corporate uplift of its mission statement, Facebook is a company whose essential premise is misanthropic. It is perhaps for that reason that Facebook, more than any other company of its size, has a thread of malignity running through its story. The high-profile, tabloid version of this has come in the form of incidents such as the live-streaming of rapes, suicides, murders and cop-killings. But this is one of the areas where Facebook seems to me relatively blameless. People live-stream these terrible things over the site because it has the biggest audience; if Snapchat or Periscope were bigger, they’d be doing it there instead.
In many other areas, however, the site is far from blameless. The highest-profile recent criticisms of the company stem from its role in Trump’s election. There are two components to this, one of them implicit in the nature of the site, which has an inherent tendency to fragment and atomise its users into like-minded groups. The mission to ‘connect’ turns out to mean, in practice, connect with people who agree with you. We can’t prove just how dangerous these ‘filter bubbles’ are to our societies, but it seems clear that they are having a severe impact on our increasingly fragmented polity. Our conception of ‘we’ is becoming narrower.
This fragmentation created the conditions for the second strand of Facebook’s culpability in the Anglo-American political disasters of the last year. The portmanteau terms for these developments are ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, and they were made possible by the retreat from a general agora of public debate into separate ideological bunkers. In the open air, fake news can be debated and exposed; on Facebook, if you aren’t a member of the community being served the lies, you’re quite likely never to know that they are in circulation. It’s crucial to this that Facebook has no financial interest in telling the truth. No company better exemplifies the internet-age dictum that if the product is free, you are the product. Facebook’s customers aren’t the people who are on the site: its customers are the advertisers who use its network and who relish its ability to direct ads to receptive audiences. Why would Facebook care if the news streaming over the site is fake? Its interest is in the targeting, not in the content. This is probably one reason for the change in the company’s mission statement. If your only interest is in connecting people, why would you care about falsehoods? They might even be better than the truth, since they are quicker to identify the like-minded. The newfound ambition to ‘build communities’ makes it seem as if the company is taking more of an interest in the consequence of the connections it fosters.
It’s a bizarre set of priorities, which only makes sense in an American context, where any whiff of explicit sexuality would immediately give the site a reputation for unwholesomeness. Photos of breastfeeding women are banned and rapidly get taken down. Lies and propaganda are fine.
The key to understanding this is to think about what advertisers want: they don’t want to appear next to pictures of breasts because it might damage their brands, but they don’t mind appearing alongside lies because the lies might be helping them find the consumers they’re trying to target.
Facebook needs content, obviously, because that’s what the site consists of: content that other people have created. It’s just that it isn’t too keen on anyone apart from Facebook making any money from that content. Over time, that attitude is profoundly destructive to the creative and media industries. Access to an audience – that unprecedented two billion people – is a wonderful thing, but Facebook isn’t in any hurry to help you make money from it. If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. Jonathan Taplin points out that this is ‘almost fifteen million years of free labour per year’. That was back when it had a mere 1.23 billion users.
Taplin has worked in academia and in the film industry. The reason he feels so strongly about these questions is that he started out in the music business, as manager of The Band, and was on hand to watch the business being destroyed by the internet. What had been a $20 billion industry in 1999 was a $7 billion industry 15 years later. He saw musicians who had made a good living become destitute. That didn’t happen because people had stopped listening to their music – more people than ever were listening to it – but because music had become something people expected to be free. YouTube is the biggest source of music in the world, playing billions of tracks annually, but in 2015 musicians earned less from it and from its ad-supported rivals than they earned from sales of vinyl. Not CDs and recordings in general: vinyl.
Something similar has happened in the world of journalism. Facebook is in essence an advertising company which is indifferent to the content on its site except insofar as it helps to target and sell advertisements. A version of Gresham’s law is at work, in which fake news, which gets more clicks and is free to produce, drives out real news, which often tells people things they don’t want to hear, and is expensive to produce. In addition, Facebook uses an extensive set of tricks to increase its traffic and the revenue it makes from targeting ads, at the expense of the news-making institutions whose content it hosts. Its news feed directs traffic at you based not on your interests, but on how to make the maximum amount of advertising revenue from you. In September 2016, Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian, told a Financial Timesconference that Facebook had ‘sucked up $27 million’ of the newspaper’s projected ad revenue that year. ‘They are taking all the money because they have algorithms we don’t understand, which are a filter between what we do and how people receive it.’
This goes to the heart of the question of what Facebook is and what it does. For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company. Martínez gives the clearest account both of how it ended up like that, and how Facebook advertising works. In the early years of Facebook, Zuckerberg was much more interested in the growth side of the company than in the monetisation. That changed when Facebook went in search of its big payday at the initial public offering, the shining day when shares in a business first go on sale to the general public. This is a huge turning-point for any start-up: in the case of many tech industry workers, the hope and expectation associated with ‘going public’ is what attracted them to their firm in the first place, and/or what has kept them glued to their workstations. It’s the point where the notional money of an early-days business turns into the real cash of a public company.
…What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
That’s growth, which will mainly happen in the developing world. Here in the rich world, the focus is more on monetisation, and it’s in this area that I have to admit something which is probably already apparent. I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me. It goes back to that moment of its creation, Zuckerberg at his keyboard after a few drinks creating a website to compare people’s appearance, not for any real reason other than that he was able to do it. That’s the crucial thing about Facebook, the main thing which isn’t understood about its motivation: it does things because it can. Zuckerberg knows how to do something, and other people don’t, so he does it. Motivation of that type doesn’t work in the Hollywood version of life, so Aaron Sorkin had to give Zuck a motive to do with social aspiration and rejection. But that’s wrong, completely wrong. He isn’t motivated by that kind of garden-variety psychology. He does this because he can, and justifications about ‘connection’ and ‘community’ are ex post facto rationalisations. The drive is simpler and more basic. That’s why the impulse to growth has been so fundamental to the company, which is in many respects more like a virus than it is like a business. Grow and multiply and monetise. Why? There is no why. Because.
Automation and artificial intelligence are going to have a big impact in all kinds of worlds. These technologies are new and real and they are coming soon. Facebook is deeply interested in these trends. We don’t know where this is going, we don’t know what the social costs and consequences will be, we don’t know what will be the next area of life to be hollowed out, the next business model to be destroyed, the next company to go the way of Polaroid or the next business to go the way of journalism or the next set of tools and techniques to become available to the people who used Facebook to manipulate the elections of 2016. We just don’t know what’s next, but we know it’s likely to be consequential, and that a big part will be played by the world’s biggest social network. On the evidence of Facebook’s actions so far, it’s impossible to face this prospect without unease.
- This shit is not normal by Jim Poe in Overland
- On recognition by Tony Birch in Overland
- Sam Cooney Book Review
Hope is like a key card I perpetually lose and find by Nayuka Gorrie
I am one of the lucky ones. I have a roof over my head. I have food on the table. I have enough proximity to whiteness to be protected from the worst of it. Despite this I am not an inherently hopeful person. I am not an inherently trustful person. I particularly don’t trust white people and institutions who have a vested interest in the world staying the same.
I recently watched I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript. I found my feelings echoed at one point in the documentary when Baldwin is having a conversation with an old white man. In reflecting on his relationships with white people, he said it was like being asked to take a leap of faith on people that he can not afford to trust. My question lately is: does having hope that this nation can face the reality it doesn’t want to see rely on the kindness of white people, and is that too big a leap of faith?
We see the entitlement of white settlers still in this country. We see it in statements about what Australian values are. We see it in discussions around who white Australia allows to come to this country and how they get here. The entitlement to country that their ancestors stole and continue to steal is truly mind boggling. The wilful historical amnesia of forgetting the very boats your ancestors came on while denying the rights of other people on boats is breathtaking.
To the white settler who feels entitled to this country, Aboriginal people are inconvenient. Our existence is a reminder of the cost of their existence that they would prefer to ignore. To be disenfranchised on your own country is a strange feeling. I have a history in the suburb Fitzroy that spans four generations and yet it is not my home. It is not my country and yet I have more of a connection to that suburb than many white settlers. They can only imagine what it would be like to have a connection that spans thousands of generations.
- Projecting prejudice: why it’s time to remember women’s film criticism in Overland