Fair’s Fair: writers and readers on the internet


THERE ARE NOW nearly 3 billion users of the internet.It has seen staggering growth, from a proposal to world dominance in twenty five years.

As the web celebrates this marker, its proposer Tim Berners-Lee has called for internet users to ‘ask how we can help make it a truly open, secure and creative platform – available to everyone.’

The idea was that the internet would provide a vast digital commons that would mean fair access to culture for all. The reality now pits writers against readers, and more generally, the consumers of culture against producers of it, in the battle over free content.

Who will be better off and who will be worse off, as the migration of culture to the world wide web plays out? So far, the equity effects are uneven, at best. The hope that the internet can continue to be ‘truly open and secure’ is already compromised by the capture of it in the nets of global commerce.

We need to weigh up whether the appearance of democracy on the web – the greater access to writing and reading made possible by blogging and self-publishing and citizen journalism – is not merely commercial exploitation, coming at the cost of professional writing and writers.

Fair Use

The vexed issue of digital copyright has been highlighted with the tabling in Federal Parliament in February of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s final report on it.

The argument has been about protecting copyright while managing cultural access for all users of internet content, from books to apps and music. It is happening in a global context, where sovereign borders don’t protect copyright and where variations in the law from country to country complicate matters.

The report recommends adopting the  ‘controversial’ (in Attorney-General Brandis’ words) exception for ‘Fair Use’, which is the law in the world’s largest provider and disseminator of intellectual property, the US.

‘Fair Use’ appeals to those who want the system streamlined to keep pace with e-commerce and who want to keep the costs down for users and some providers. But originators of content, like authors, musicians and film-makers, resist the measures as a wholesale bargaining away of their livelihoods.

In the leading US example, the Google project, the uploading of large numbers of books to a digital library was challenged by the Writers’ Guild and others as a breach of intellectual property rights. But the US Federal Supreme Court ruled in favour of Google that such a library fell within the ‘fair use’ provisions.

Devices and Desires

With the migration of publishing online, by traditional and self-publishers, the question becomes whether written culture is more, or less, accessible.

The buying and borrowing of books in the old style doesn’t equate to the speed and ease of downloads and internet browsing, but some have argued that moving writing online disadvantages those who can’t afford computers, tablets and e-reading devices.

The market for reading online is growing very fast; 23% of Americans said they had read ebooks in 2012, up from 16% in 2011.This figure, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, is now freely and easily accessed on an iPad from Australia with a click on a search engine, showing how the internet has also revolutionised the task of professional writing and researching. But it also makes reading, writing and researching depend on getting online.

Education in particular has felt the internet’s uneven equity effects. The introduction of BYOD (bring your own device) programs in public schools in the last year has been the latest response to the rise of online content, and an indicator that online learning is no longer optional.

While a 2009 Bureau of Statistics survey showed nine out of ten Australian households with children had access to a computer, and 86% had access to the internet, predictably this access was income-sensitive. Only 60% of children in households in the lowest 20% of incomes had access to the internet at home while in all other quintiles it was more than 80%.

Direction of change

Social media, including blogging and citizen journalism, are dramatically affecting the market for professional writing and image-making. Facebook users topped 1 billion a month, or one in seven worldwide, in October 2012. The imperative to write on and to the internet is clear.

What is not as clear is how journalists and professional writers will make their living at it, in the company of amateurs who will produce column inches for free. The consequences in the collapse of print journalism are registered in job losses and share price slides.

The experience of other arts like music and photography are indicative of where these trends, for producers and consumers of writing, are leading.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is quoted as saying in May 2013 that ‘… there’s no such thing as Flickr Pro, because today, with cameras as pervasive as they are, there is no such thing really as professional photographers’.

As a blogger tartly replied: ‘not everyone with a camera is a professional photographer’. The technology is now such that most cameras can take a publishable photo. This has seen the market for professional images undermined, with people also sourcing images from the web for free.

The music industry has followed a trajectory that can be seen to be happening in writing a decade later. Album sales were trending up until 1999, but they reversed their direction until, by the end of the decade, they had slipped to 1973 levels.

The industry made much of the interruption of Napster and other file-sharing (piracy) platforms.  In 2001, Napster was ordered by a US court to close its file-swapping website.

The claim that internet piracy had crashed the business model of the recording industry, explaining why millions of dollars in revenue that would otherwise have flowed to the legitimate performers and producers of popular music was lost, is complicated by the change in format that downloads make possible. It has seen the collapse of the CD as a format for recorded music – with it has gone album sales in favour of downloading individual songs. Some consumers claim this has aggravated the problem by causing the product to change in the 2000s, becoming much less interesting and various.

It’s hard to avoid the comparison between this and the move from books to e-books. And it might reflect a problem for writing, too – that the ‘understory’ of small publishers, niche books and literary locals that underpin reading could be lost, as the economies of scale that internet markets require support only the ‘canopy’ of best-sellers and blockbusters.

Perhaps this environmental degradation may be the greatest threat from the internet to writing and reading, long term, especially in literary and regional sectors of the market.

Myth of Origin

Will the internet ideal founder on the tendency of all commons, according to classical political economy, to become enclosed and privatised? We see the internet co-opted to mass surveillance and the rise of monopolists like Google and Amazon.

It was JFK who observed that ‘if Marx’s editors had paid him better we may never have had communism’. The internet as a drama of capital accumulation is often likened to the frontiers of the Wild West.

As photographer and blogger Ian Plant puts it: ‘All of our quaint and old-fashioned standards regarding privacy and intellectual property rights are being swept away … with young Internet users in particular, anything found on the web is considered “free stuff,” to be shared, repurposed, and memed in ways you can’t even imagine.’

The challenge now is to imagine what equity looks like in the wake of the internet tsunami. We need to ask whether the ease and freedom of access offered by the web might still preserve the quality and variety of culture.

Or whether the internet as ‘a truly open, secure and creative platform’ has now morphed into an engine of injustice.

*This article first appeared on Australian Author Online, March 25.








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Looking for a new business model for writing


 The internet seems to offer great opportunity for writers to get their work out to audiences and to retain a greater creative and financial control than is offered with traditional publishing.

Yet, at the present moment, it has actually resulted in the opposite; the collapse of opportunity for new writers, and writers in literary and non-commercial genres, to publish at all.

This collapse is commonly blamed on the internet, which is said to have ‘broken the business model’ of traditional publishing. What does this mean, and what are the consequences for Australian writers and their work? Are there other ‘business models’ that can allow writing to reach its readers and flourish?


A business model is the method by which an enterprise makes money. In the case of publishing, it has traditionally come from sales of the book as a kind of commodity. The revenue from sales may be stimulated by marketing or by cross-subsidy between titles in a publishing house, but the business model remains the same: the book is a wager that readers will want its contents at a price that will pay for more than its production.

Of course, this model is made richer by the environment in which the publishing takes place. Favourable critical attention improves the chances of sales by contributing to marketing. A track record of critical or financial success gives an author and a publishing house ‘better odds’.

But an unholy confluence of events in Australia has now led to an environment in which this business model may face extinction. The reason is a dramatic change in the means of setting price. The internet raider breaking the business model for publishers is called Amazon.

The reason is simple; online retailers of books are able to offer lower prices to consumers worldwide. They do so by mass discounting on retail prices, using their market power to buy books from wholesalers at a discount. Since price is the driver of the traditional business model, this is a crisis for publishers who cannot absorb this discounting.

And typically, the vulnerable publisher is small and/or in a small market, where economies of scale cannot be made in order to deliver these volume discounts. The price of this publisher’s books are higher than those of the internet sellers meaning that even where they can distribute through these ‘e-tailers’, they are competing with similar cheaper titles on the global scene.

These effects take place because the book is traditionally a physical commodity, whose price includes its paper, printing, freighting and warehousing. Not surprisingly, then, the first visible casualties in Australia have been bookshops; independents, and then large booksellers like Borders and Angus & Robertson, have gone to the wall.

But publishing itself is now suffering. As a small regional culture, Australian writing faces being overwhelmed by these changes to the sale of books as physical commodities, that mandate economies of scale and require mass audiences for the viability of publication.

The on-line retailers’ global distribution undermines the gentlemen’s agreement known as the ‘territories’ arrangements. Traditionally upheld by the international Berne Convention on copyright, territories arrangements allowed publishers to segment markets, and to produce books of local and regional interest for the audiences in a specific geographical place. Thus, the cover price could reflect the cost to the readers most likely to be interested in buying it. Now these segments have lost their natural insulation. They must compete in a global market that dictates how, and for how much, books are sold everywhere.


At the same time, the internet has provided other challenges which will be perhaps more far-reaching for the book: the increase of on-line content competing for readers world-wide. While ‘facebook’ is not the same thing as a ‘good book’, the free stuff of social media competes with the published word for attention.

The internet also famously allows for the easy downloading of texts of all kinds, removing the need for production and shipping as a printed object. The internet ‘publishing arms’ like Google and Amazon are not yet discriminating like traditional publishers; they sell anything and everything legal that people will pay to up- and down-load.

This produces a pressure on book sales in regional markets like Australia, but it also might be thought to create an opportunity for local writers and publishers to cut their costs and distribute their writing electronically.

So, could gaining a better understanding of ways to promote Australian work through the internet allow writers to benefit from the global move online? Two alternative business models to those of traditional publishing follow this intuition; ‘indie’ (independent) publishing, and the ‘authorpreneur’.


Fifty Shades of Grey generated huge excitement in Australian publishing in 2012 because it was originated on the internet by a Sydney internet genre e-publisher, The Writers’ Coffee Shop. Its success on-line was such that it spawned printed editions that went on to sell millions.

But Fifty Shades of Grey was in the vicinity of the soft porn genre. It might be thought that if you can’t sell sex on the internet, then you’d better give up selling. Although touted as a case of what internet publishing can do, what the example of Fifty Shades of Grey shows is rather the converse – how risk aversion is destroying publishing. It seems no traditional publisher was prepared to take on this title at first blush, and its commercial success evaded the usual gate-keeping of agents and commissioning editors. Ironcially, since its discovery, it has set the bar for other, less racy, titles unrealistically higher.

Most internet ‘indie’ publishers are not attracting the same attention for their titles, be they ‘genre’ or not. But their numbers are growing in Australia, alongside ebook-only lists originated by traditional publishers. These enterprises have the option of selling via the web as e-book or as ‘print-on-demand’, a form of compromise that still makes the book a physical object, but only where and when it is ordered, thereby substantially cutting the costs of warehousing and distribution.


The authorpreneur is a business model in which the risks of the publishing venture are taken on by the author herself. Since the invention of personal computing, it’s been tempting to self-publish. The tools are there now, to convert a word document to the e-format and upload it to Amazon, there to cross fingers and wait for readers to download it.

The expertise of the various professionals involved in book production – the editors, designers and copy-editors – are now all becoming available as services a writer can contract directly, including the capacity to produce ‘print-on-demand’.

Promotion and marketing is highlighted as essential to this model, and perhaps the successful authorpreneur is distinguished from the old vanity publisher by this means. A writer with a following already garnered in a field of interest which the book is about, and who is assiduous about using social media and other free means of promotion, can sell books.

But digital self-publishing isn’t a way to get rich quick, as the ‘2012 Taleist Self-publishing Survey’ (discussed elsewhere on this website) documents. It also requires the dedication of the writer to all the other tasks of the business, which may defeat the purpose of becoming a writer.


The big challenge for the models of the authorpreneur and the ‘indie’ is that of critical recognition.

If the book object were the point, then digital capability would by now dominate the market. But actually a lot more goes into making a book ‘just like a bought one’. We know this because of the sad affront of the remaindered book.

The writer in this new environment needs to take account of something that was (sadly) as true in the old: it is not at all easy to make a living as a writer in Australia, and most writers don’t. Getting writing to its intended audience is not the same from genre to genre, but quality writing, at least, has never really sold well enough to make the writer a living.

The publisher in this new environment also needs to take account of the old: most books have never really sold well enough to fund their own promotion. The traditional publisher has relied to a large extent on their ‘brand’ effect, to capture readership for new quality writing. This branding the authorpreneur or the Indie cannot expect to have, until a critical culture evolves in which reputations are supported in a new way.

The book is the material sign of a reading community whose approbation is everything in the reception of writing. The recognition of writing in the act of reading is an elemental act of culture. So the book is the means to an end, even though it can be sidetracked into becoming a fetish object itself.

This question of critical recognition needs to be addressed with the same intensity as the practicalities of DIY in order for self-publishing to be the answer to the publishing crisis. The hard question becomes how to form the critical community to go with the independently-published digital title. The lack of a pedigree is still a real barrier to getting a review on the crowded book pages.

A consequence of the troubles for journalism has been a downsizing recently of the book pages. Here the crisis in journalism meets the crisis in publishing. For example, the changes forced on the Fairfax newspapers has now merged what were two sites of reviewing – The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald – effectively into one.

In this move, a creative rivalry is lost, and a second opinion, along with a variety of voices offering criticism on new Australian writing. It’s likely an Australian title won’t get attention overseas, and now its critical attention in Australia is effectively halved, which may mean it is extinguished. And a book that isn’t reviewed is unlikely to sell.


While the crises in publishing and journalism have different drivers, they have one consequence in common; the closing down of avenues for participation in writing culture. Critical cultures are public spaces that surround and support the writing wherever and however it is done.

The threat of the internet to critical ecologies is that of ‘habitat-destruction’ of the literary, the regional, the specialist and the minor literature. The net could lay waste to whole swathes of specifically Australian literary and cultural life as a result of its global model of commerce.

This makes the necessity for new business models an urgent question, and not only for writers who need to make a living, and publishers who need to make a profit.

It’s an important question for public policy, too.


This piece was first published on Australian Author Online August 2013

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Love and Violence: the Simon Gittany Case

Courtwatchers queue to hear Simon Gittany sentenced for murder

Courtwatchers queue to see Simon Gittany sentenced for murder

SIMON GITTANY WAS sentenced to 26 years in jail in the NSW Supreme Court in February, for throwing his fiancé over the balcony.

The killing of a woman by her partner occurs every week across Australia, but it rarely ends so publicly, with a body lying on the footpath. More often, the victim is killed in her home and there are no witnesses to the final agony of love gone horribly wrong.

Among court watchers there was a firmly repeated mantra -‘that’s not love’; ‘what he did to her was not love’. Unfortunately, for a statistically significant number of relationships in Australia, this is what passes for love.

As Gittany’s sentencing hearing took place at the  Darlinghurst court, the Supreme Court scheduled a date for hearing another case where a man was charged with murdering a woman who had chosen to leave their relationship. (Like Gittany, Brian Bradbury is pleading not guilty.)

It’s so common it is now a truism that a woman is more likely to be murdered by her partner in her own home than by a stranger anywhere else. This seems preposterous, given that the home is meant to be a place of refuge in a hard world, and a haven of love and safety. So why do some men act with violence toward their partners, and how do women get into domestic relationships with them?

Lisa Cecilia Harnum’s mother wrote in her victim impact statement to the court: ‘All Simon Gittany had to do on that morning was stand aside and let her go home to her family.’ ‘To all the men who put women and children in positions of confinement, you have to stop.’

Of course this is right. But it is deceptively simple. As the facts in the Gittany case show, murderous love doesn’t happen overnight.

The circumstances in which Simon Gittany could have stood aside were lost in the months before, when he installed software that spied on her mobile phone; the year before, when he told her to give up her job because he wasn’t comfortable with her working outside the house; right back at the beginning of things when he instructed her to dress more modestly and not to make eye contact with other men in the street.

In the hours before the crime, when Gittany turned off the cameras in the apartment perhaps so they couldn’t record what might happen there, it was far too late.

Joan Harnum called on everyone to reach out to women in abusive relationships, and to support the White Ribbon campaign against violence toward women and children. This, too, is right. But other aspects of the case indicate how very complicated this can be in practice.

The media pack scramble to interview the family after the trial

The media pack scramble to interview the family after the trial

A ‘duality’ in his character

The Defence tabled forty-four character references on behalf of Gittany, in which family and friends described him as gentle, loving, caring and generous. Many of them were women. Several of them testified explicitly to his love and care for Lisa Harnum, and how, to those outside it, the relationship seemed loving. There was ample evidence elsewhere in the trial of Lisa Harnum’s deep love for him.

Added to this was the startling sideshow of his present girlfriend, Rachelle Louise, going into the witness box, and also on national television, to dispute the verdict and testify to the ‘fantastic’ relationship she and the offender had together.

The Crown referred to a ‘duality’ in the offender’s conduct, in order to contrast the lovingness that was there alongside the domineering control. What makes Joan Harnum’s adjuration so hard in practice is the way we contrast these two, love and violence, as though where there is one, the other would not be present.

The stark reality of this kind of case is the fact that the violence is a part of the psychology of the love. It need not be gendered, but there are powerful cultural reasons why it is more often a man who seeks to control a woman.

The psychology of love starts from a person’s relation to what psychologists call ‘the love-object’. Deep feeling for something beyond oneself can cause a desire to possess the object, which is felt as crucial to one’s psychical balance. In some personalities, this anxiety is intense enough to provoke the need to control this part of themselves which is outside themselves. The control comes from the same source as the love; the psychical attachment to the beloved.

For both partners, this love is a trap.  This way of loving can have devastating, although very different, consequences – for the female victim, the risk of death and injury, for the male offender the risk of criminal prosecution and incarceration. And while the possessiveness is more often seen in men, the submissiveness of women is also a style of love that meshes with it and can be a recipe for disaster.

The campaign against violence toward women, for clear rhetorical reasons, wants to reject that this is love at all. But this may be counterproductive, because it is preventing women from analysing the real consequences of different styles of love.

Ideology of love

Lisa Harnum wanted to marry Simon Gittany, and have children. She was thirty years old, so it was presumably becoming an issue. And her feelings were disabling her. Because she loved him, because of the bond she had forged with him, she found it very difficult to resolve to leave him.

He wasn’t always angry, he could be loving and caring, and perhaps she could feel, even in his anger, how important she was to him. So, she struggled to believe that he would do her harm. And this was despite the harm he’d already done her; the dress code he imposed, the loss of association with friends, and being denied the right to work.

Because of the way women are still trained to believe they need a man, she would not have been able to accept that he was predatory. This was no doubt partly because, when she loved someone, she didn’t desire to harm him. Her feelings were leading her into danger, even while she felt they were taking her toward a haven of married life.

Joan Harnum spoke of her daughter’s loving and compassionate spirit. Of her spontaneous generosity. ‘She chose to find the best in everyone’. And she talked of her own despair, and the self-recrimination where as a parent, she felt she ‘should have found a way to prevent the child from dying.’

Joan Harnum did all she could from her position on the other side of the world. She spoke with her daughter regularly, she booked tickets home, she begged her to just leave. ‘Your stuff is not important.’ But her daughter was no longer a child. It must have been very hard to gauge whether there was a serious threat, and even harder, as her parent, to know how to intervene.

Her daughter was anguished, but uncertain. She was having real trouble dragging herself away from the situation, despite admitting in some moods to being frightened of Simon Gittany. In others, she called him her fiancé and looked forward to having a baby. What was it about the circumstances that caused her not to see how vulnerable she was, and how she might be in danger?

That’s a question that could be put in many relationships like theirs. In fact, it was raised in at least one other relationship mentioned in passing in the witness box. The evidence of an un-named witness, ultimately excluded by the judge because it added nothing to a finding that she had already made as to guilt, nevertheless referred to a series of conversations allegedly had with the victim in the early months of the relationship with Gittany.

Lisa’s new friend, in whom she confided on numerous occasions according to the testimony, had herself left an abusive relationship some time before. When Lisa told her that Gittany had threatened to kill her if she left him, and to make it look like suicide, the friend reports saying: ‘They just say that. Todd said that to me, too. They don’t mean it. Just ignore it, and leave.’

The unreliability of people in love, and the known extremity of words uttered in the height of passion, served to cause doubt in others around her as to her objective prospects. Neither of the counsellors Lisa told her story to were prompted to take positive action to secure her welfare, and not even her mother felt sure enough to insist.

It seems that Lisa herself only reached the conviction that she should go when she realised her partner had breached her trust by putting surveillance on her phone without her knowledge. And even then, with this powerful proof that his actions were doing her harm, she still thought she would be able to walk out the door without him physically preventing her. The terrifying moment, captured on CCTV footage, of what he did next must have shocked her as violently as it does the community now.

Because love was in the mix, Lisa Harnum had some powerful disincentives to plan for her escape.

One of these, we could surmise, was her age. At thirty years old, she thought she had found the man she could marry and have children with. The clock was ticking. Women are still culturally trained to marry in order to have their children – this can weigh heavily on a woman in her thirties. To have a partner is socially necessary.

A part of this is the ideology of love – the way women share the ideal among themselves, the confidences about boyfriends and futures, the time that is lavished on making the relationship fit the profile of a ‘good’ relationship. The social premium on having a successful relationship is high.

To get love aligned is still a great feminine ambition, because then intimate life meets social position and she fits in. If this is considered outdated, just consider the opposite; the sad loneliness of the single heterosexual woman still looking for love in her late thirties. The pickings get slimmer, the blokes get more unsuitable as marriage material, the world has less and less respect for a woman without a family of her own.

So we can assume there was a lot at stake for Lisa Harnum, in giving away the prospect of marriage, particularly to an outwardly eligible man like Simon Gittany.

The ’Hooded Eye’

Faith in love itself, and this temperamental habit of ‘seeing the best in everyone’, can mislead a woman. Far from being a positive value, this idealism can obscure the reality that some kinds of intimacy are predatory. Lisa Harnum’s feelings were leading her into danger, but she would have found this proposition counter-intuitive. Her text messaging shows her life was run by feeling, and the affirmation of feelings between people. The common assumption that ‘what you feel must be true’ is sometimes blinding.

A woman can be betrayed by her own sense of being loved. The duality the Crown speaks of is not a myth. The woman victim of domestic violence is not led into intimacy by cynical acts of tyranny, but by seductive gestures of tenderness that at the time are indistinguishable from sincerity.

While Simon Gittany showed calculation in his imprisonment of Lisa Harnum in their life together, his actions were dressed up as love and were presented to her as proof of love. ‘Simon doesn’t like me to be admired by other men’. Jealousy is recognised as caused by love, and this can cloud a woman’s judgement. This is especially true where she is seeking reassurance that she is loved. If her partner senses she needs that reassurance, it can be the basis for a continuing campaign of control, as indeed it seems to have been in this case.

In a classic book about myth and fairytale, Women Who Run With The Wolves, the story of Bluebeard is analysed as a cautionary tale for women. The book argued this story taught a folk wisdom to women, to leave aside their enculturated naivete about love and feeling, and to develop instead ‘the hooded eye’.

While that advice may seem to crush what is charming in the loving innocence of a girl, it is probably teaching that needs to be given more often to a woman today. This is so that the feminine quality of ‘seeing the best in everyone’ doesn’t become a trap that ruins her life.

And so that the imperative to be a happily married woman doesn’t lead her into its nightmarish opposite.

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Skin In The Game

watching paint dry ... Baldessari's 'Thirteen colorful inside jobs'

watching paint dry … Baldessari’s ‘Thirteen colorful inside jobs’

Big names illuminated the eponymous thirteen rooms of the Kaldor Public Art exhibition, 13 Rooms.

Like the previous iterations of the format, 11 Rooms in Manchester and 12 Rooms in Essen, work of Marina Abramovic, Joan Jonas, Richard Serra, Damien Hirst, John Baldessari and others was replayed in a circuit of domestic-scale ‘rooms’, designed for the space at Sydney’s pier 2/3 by Harry Seidler & Associates Architects.

The conceit, as outlined by curators no less famous – Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery and Klaus Biesenbach of MOMA  – was a gallery in which ‘all the sculptures go home at night’. Such conceptual curation might open Sol LeWitt’s prediction of an ‘idea that becomes a machine that makes the art’ to an infinitely expanding marketing opportunity.

Some classics re-emerged. Baldessari re-interpreted his 1977 video event of ‘Six Colourful Inside Jobs’ that paid homage to a legendary art origin in Sol Le Witt’s work by paying painters to repaint the room continuously in a changing palette of colours. In the Abramovic room, her 1997 classic performance ‘Luminosity’, of a nude woman poised on a bicycle seat, was restaged using a roster of paid performers. Joan Jonas’ famous ‘Mirror Check’ (1970), in which the artist, nude, examined her own body with a small mirror, was re-played also using paid performers.

Allora & Calzadilla, ‘Revolving Door’ with Sydney Dance Company

Allora & Calzadilla, ‘Revolving Door’ with Sydney Dance Company

Performance art began its trajectory through capital-‘A’ Art as transgressive. It started as a critique of the scripted world of the theatre and performing arts. It linked to traditions of the absurd and conceptual art, resisting commodification in art. It lent itself to the political, exploiting its transient character to evade authoritarian repression in communist Eastern Europe. And it played a part in the feminist politics of the 1970s and the queer politics of 1980s by performing ideas of body, gender and sexuality.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps through the sheer duration of its practitioners, it became the stuff of contemporary art legend. 13 Rooms displayed this trajectory in a way that raised a whole new set of questions.

Abramovic’s ‘room’, for example, could not have been further from the extremity of her work in the 1970s-1990s, in which time and again she staked her own body (and sometimes her life) in the artistic performance. Stabbing with knives, ingesting powerful drugs, performing in fire, walking half the length of the Great Wall of China – in all these, the risk of performance was assumed by the artist’s body, to explore states of consciousness and of endurance.

Even quieter, more recent, work like’ The Artist Is Present’ (2010) essentially involved Abramovic’s own body. She also staked her celebrity in that show, albeit at the risk mainly of tedium (the performance took 736 hours). As when she performed other people’s performances in ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ (2005), the effect was remarkably different to her latest ‘room’ because her celebrity appropriated the earlier performances into her own oeuvre . To achieve the same effect here, imagine that Abramovic would deputise the bicycle seat performance to Tracey Moffatt, trading off against a whole later chapter in contemporary art.

Meaning leached from Joan Jonas’ work in a different way in its iteration in 13 Rooms. The mirror, when first used in her work, was a fresh metaphor for feminine narcissism and for psychological identity.

The self-examination was ‘mirrored’ in, for example, Luce Irigaray’s influential Speculum of the Other Woman. Its effect was to underline how feminine identity was primarily constructed for a male gaze, and, played out in the self-scrutiny of the make-up mirror, how woman/artist/subject prepared a performance of herself for ‘the other’.

Today, the gendered nature of the gaze has been diluted by consumer cultures that render every body male or female as a produced object in search of ‘the look’. To delegate the scrutiny of the artist’s naked body to a slim, young female paid performer risks rendering asinine the anxiety that was invested in the earlier performance.  The piece no longer says anything about gender and the body except to say that the critical moment has come and gone. To re-imagine this performance in respect of contemporary values, the mirror would likely be held by an obese woman or one in a fifty-something body.

Damien Hirst, ‘Hans, Georg’,1992, performers Curtis and Jeffrey Argent

Damien Hirst, ‘Hans, Georg’,1992, performers Curtis and Jeffrey Argent

Not all performance art relies on the presence of the artist’s own body; ‘instructional art’ famously anticipates performances that may never even eventuate. But in these two re-stagings – Abramovic’s and Jonas’ – the new performance robs the previous one of its radical act in a way that other restagings in 13 Rooms, such as the Baldessari piece, do not.

While the Baldessari iteration, ‘Thirteen Colourful Inside Jobs’, may have been only slightly more invigorating than the proverbial watching paint dry, its performance by young Sydneysiders in 2013 didn’t vitiate the original, but added a layer to its conceptual history. In the case of the women artists, their work and their celebrity was born from other art histories. Re-performing these famous pieces in 13 Rooms confirms their place in the pantheon, but papers over what put them there.

The Museum of Contemporary Art opened its own show of performance art in the week following 13 Rooms. Curator Liz Ann Macgregor commented that there had been something of a revival – ‘if you’d asked me ten years ago if a museum like the MCA would be programming performance, I’d have said “oh, it’s not really where it at” …’.

Perhaps what dated was the political edge that Abramovic, Jonas and others brought to it, adopting their own poses nude and with conviction. Even Gilbert & George’s ‘singing sculpture’ performances complete with gilded faces are 40 years ago (Kaldor brought them to Australia in 1973). Now the silver-faced ‘living sculptures’ play for loose change further down Circular Quay. Now it’s bad art, echoing the boomerangs and dot paintings made by backpackers and laid out for sale along the railings.

For years, it seemed performance art and other conceptual art like installation evaded commodification, and even stood against it. But 13 Rooms demonstrates that this, too, is passé. Jason Farago has recently argued: ‘today we have no expectation, when we go to an art gallery, of some pure aesthetic experience beyond the real world of economic flows, mass media or even geopolitics. Now art is simply a constituent component of one giant image stream …’

The promotional material promises that 13 Rooms is ‘a new way of understanding art’, inviting us to ‘open the doors, enter into the rooms and experience a totally new way of encountering art’. Is this just bad marketing copy or do they mean it? May be it exposes us (and high time?) to the purist cynicism about the value of art, and the market. We are sold second-hand and used performance as antique and collectable.

As a performance of the production of value in end-stage capitalism, it is a tour de force. The staging of 13 Rooms is temporary – not as a circus, more as a ‘better homes’ exhibition, or a sales expo with café, social media, merchandise for sale. It’s contemporary art as franchise. Perhaps it’s repellent in its superficiality. But it’s true to its time and perhaps to its public, who today are marked not as cognoscienti but as consumers.

13 Rooms is above all an idea about commodity, using the public’s desire-anxiety to be up close to contemporary art as glamorised in museums that are kin now to Disneyworld and Stately Homes. The curators are unabashed about this: Beisenbach comments that an exhibition that is ‘just instructions … in today’s market-driven economy is very important’.

The ploy of ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ selling itself as pure commodity worked like a charm. The queues to get into 13 Rooms on a sunny Sunday afternoon stretched down the Quay, begging the question: What have you got when you take the skin out of the game?

Queuing to get in to '13 Rooms'

Queuing to get in to ’13 Rooms’


This piece also appeared on Berfrois: Intellectual Jousting in the Republic of Letters – see http://www.berfrois.com/

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Anthropology As Art


 vitrine taboo

There was more going on in the Brook Andrew show, Taboo, (Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, December 19, 2012-February 24, 2013) than meets the eye.

On the face of it, as a group show on a titillating topic, it continued the rhetorical impact of the Sexy and Dangerous photographs that first brought Andrew to prominence in 1996.

Andrew has worked with ethnographic images in archives and museums throughout his career. He has also worked with the conventions of a post-colonial image-world in which ‘the look’ and ‘the gaze’ come styled by the practices of marketing.

Andrew is part of a change in Indigenous art toward an exploding of the definition. His transforming of his black and white Wiradjuri design through op-art wallpaper into a recognisable branding, appearing on clothes and buildings, is complete in the arrow installed on the outside wall of the renovated MCA.

His elaboration on themes of Indigenous identity in the wake of globalised media-images reached a pitch in the 2008-9Theme Park, a show mimicking a museum and staged across several galleries at the AAMU in Utrecht.

Taboo was a logical consequence of this, and also perhaps of his conceptual art in general, turning from installation to curation. In the spirit of anthology, not a lot of the work is new, from which we can glean that the purpose of the show was not to reveal so much as to collect together, in a new context, diverse elements presented in a new light.

Like Theme Park, Taboo comes accompanied by copious collecting – photographs and images from the historical trajectory Andrew is following – and is elaborated in writing pieces from artists and ethnographers in a catalogue of materials (as well as a series of talks, performances and films). But the material in Taboo is more genuinely artefact than artifice, and this gives the vision a different inflection, drawing more on the cabinet of curiosities for its philosophy of collection rather than the critique of a rationalist archive that underpinned Theme Park.

The idea of the taboo is peculiarly linked to the southern hemisphere and the Indigenous people of Australasia, originating with the discovery of the Tongan word by Captain Cook and his crew in 1776. While the word tabu meant, Cook was advised, both ‘sacred’ and ‘forbidden’, it was the notion of the latter that caught on in European circles. A taboo came to describe an action or situation that was forbidden on pain of supernatural retribution.

Ricardo Idagi 'Black Skin White Mask'

Ricardo Idagi ‘Black Skin White Mask’

Taboo featured new and existing work by Australian and international artists: Bindi Cole, Jimmie Durham, Leah Gordon, Alicia Henry, Ricardo Idagi, Anton Kannemeyer, Jampet Kuswidananto, Glenn Ligon, Ana Mendieta, Judy Watson and the collective Yal Ton.

Judy Watson’s newly-commissioned work blood extended her dramatic 2005 artist book, a preponderance of aboriginal blood, with an installation of blood-types collected as specimens from such types as ‘artist’ and ‘gallerist’. The specimens, displayed in a vitrine, and accompanied by a video work, capture the anxiety of classification and race.

Bindi Cole’s more personal work EH5452 included video of the artist in a re-created jail cell evoking the maximum security prison, and her shame at being held on drug charges as a young woman. The installation enjoins the personal and political in her readings of childish faith, work that Andrew describes as ‘cathartic and redemptive’.

Ricardo Idagi’s work purges his memories and visions of growing up on Murray Island in the Torres Strait, at a time when his culture was subjugated to missionary zeal. His work for this exhibition was poignantly balanced on this taboo against indigenous heritage since his whole culture was taboo and banished from explicit practice. His intricate sculptural works depict this as both personal, in the new work Black Skin, White Mask, and cultural, in the 2011 Upi Mop Le – Tail End Man that incorporates video of the artist into the traditional turtle shell mask (an artefact Idagi has produced in earlier work).

Perhaps the silence enjoined on the victim of clergy sexual abuse is the closest we come to a taboo on the contemporary scene. Jimmy Durham dramatised this moment in the installation The Meat of Jesus, involving a re-created photographic image from his childhood, of a priest offering a kneeling child a communion wafer. The neon slogan ‘the flesh of Jesus’ announces the breach.

Judy Watson 'Blood'

Judy Watson ‘Blood’

Although developed from the colonialists’ encounters with ‘primitive’ cultures, the taboo turned out to well describe the society of the Victorians, with their sexual euphemism and covered chair legs. It was so useful a notion it was famously universalised in Freud’s book Totem & Taboo, where desires for incest and parricide were to be found in each of us unconsciously. Notable more recent discussions include Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, in which the taboo is explained sociologically as the prohibition that protects the social world from a foreseeable situation that could weaken it.
As modernism bleeds into postmodernism, the interest in taboo hasn’t lessened but it has become more arch. Today we talk about taboos, but the possibility of supernatural consequences has slid away, leaving us with an idea no stronger perhaps than the giving of offence. The power of taboo is lost in translation from the traditional context to the global art platform. This may explain why the exhibition was well attended but caused little consternation, and seemed to provide family entertainment, despite the inclusion of pornographic and other material.

What does this impassivity suggest? Taboo becomes not so much about  supernatural terror but about the mirage created at the meeting of cultures. The particular artists taken along in Taboo’s wake produce their own takes on the forbidden, and demonstrate the great variations in subject and intensity of it, such as caused leading social anthropologist, Franz Steiner, to lament that it was a concept too vague to designate anything scientific. So in Taboo, the underlying exhibit is the museum itself, a place of classification and display of the fascination and fetish invested in other (conquered) people’s objects and rituals.

Andrew turns the tables on western anthropology, exhibiting its practices and thought processes as a kind of art. As earlier in his work, the frisson of ‘the savage mind’ leaks out of the Royal Society into the ‘blockbuster exhibition’, and a museum of natural history becomes a space of almost vaudeville display. From the tombs of the pharaohs to the Musée du Quai Branly, Andrew’s curation addresses the impolitesse of anthropological display for the prurience of the building of nation as a building of the brand. This is the scandal that interests him.

The whole panoply of western sciences in their encounters with cultural difference have made an exhibition of themselves, Andrew seems to say. Why not now make of the Museum of Natural History a museum of contemporary art? Why not curate an exhibition at a museum of contemporary art using the pivot of that idea ‘museum’, its techniques and tropes, the vitrine, the placard, the diorama, the photograph?

Taboo tells us the epistemological crisis occurring in the museum, and its attendant science, is such that we cannot be sure that it wasn’t art all along.

This piece first appeared in eyeline magazine, June 2013

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Talk about love …


Between Cliche and Rapture

‘We Used To Talk About Love: Balnaves Contemporary: Photomedia’; Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media finalists ‘The Space Between Us’- Art Gallery of NSW, April, 2013


What does it say about contemporary photo-media that the most poignant work in a recent exhibition of it, ‘We Used to Talk About Love’, was one composed only of words?

Grant Stevens’ imageless projection, Crushing, miraculously ignited feeling; it displayed the gagging pathos of the language routinely used about relationship today. ‘I wish I could stop thinking about this’, ‘you said you didn’t know if you still loved me’, ‘without you my life feels hollow’.

Its labored clichés, set to a stock piano mantra, brought up the horrifying loneliness of the lover’s predicament. A tangle of pain in a net of prosaic phrases -‘hoping for you to call’, ‘your housemate never liked me’, ‘baby I’m really tired’ etc etc.

But then, Rapture (silent anthem) was its antidote. Angelica Mesiti’s filming of the transcendent silence of the slow-motion crowd’s ecstasy put the viewer in touch with feeling, pure and simple. An experience is had by the mass together, but in their own solitude; nothing is communicated of their reaction to a performance that remains off-camera except their delirious affects.

These two pieces were the stand-out works in an exhibition that struggled to meet the schema of its curatorial contrivance. What does a short story by American writer Raymond Carver (‘What we talk about when we talk about love’) have to do with new Australian art? The ‘mile-wide inch-deep’ approach didn’t work to capture much about the works themselves.

The catalogue aggravated the effect, dragging in the usual philosophical suspects with which to decorate the margins. Under the heading ‘love and photography’, Natasha Bullock reminds us of Barthes’ revolutionary approach to photography in which he ‘does nothing less than attempt to relate photography to the elements of madness that are produced in love.’ (p11). And proposes that ‘his thesis about the affects of photography prompts us to ask how artists might work with the raw material of feelings now … especially in a post-conceptual, post-postmodern world full of images’. The muddled evocation sidesteps his lucid account of those affects and how word and image might fit together.

To quote Barthes, ‘the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude … spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who knows?), but warranted by no one; it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority (sciences, techniques, arts).’

He tells us, while the guests at Plato’s Symposium tried to produce a doctrine of love rather than an account of experiences of it, ‘today … there is no system of love: and the several systems which surround the contemporary lover offer him no room … none answers him, except in order to turn him away from what he loves.’ (pp210-13)

In the face of this unintelligibility, perhaps the hope is that images will fill the breach? Perhaps this is the connection that ‘We used to talk about love’ is reaching for – that images occupy the vacant space of a ‘system of love’ which is nowhere theorised or understood?

Elsewhere in the catalogue, Gail Jones whimsically narrates Walt Whitman’s life between a loving gesture and a photograph. And meanwhile, a love story could be found between these two quite different works at either end of the exhibition: Rapture, as a wordless video of ecstatic spectators and Crushing, the purely visual projection of words.

Grant Stevens’ ‘system’ makes Barthes’ point exquisitely. The clautrophobic madness of the cliché, driven into loops of its own devising, takes over where the diarising, facebook frenzies and bad poetry all fail to capture the lover’s anguish. In watching his sequenced word-images appearing and vanishing across a black field of interiority, we experience that painful thinking which is love’s stream of consciousness. The phrases cannot take form as system, because that would be to master them; at that point, the lover would be released from the bonds of love.

But the discourse of love, says Barthes, is driven into the backwater of the ‘unreal’ where it has no recourse but to become the ‘site of an affirmation’. Rapture (silent anthem) is undoubtedly an affirmation, in the strict sense of an emphatic rendering of nothing propositional. The slow-motion emoting of the vulnerable young faces – all beachified and soaked in sweat – captures something beautiful about love, at its best an affirmation of being without system, beyond capture, already engulfed and long gone from common sense.


As ‘talk about love’ was bumped out, it found a strange reprise in a showing of the Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media finalists (‘The Space Between Us’ AGNSW) that followed.

To the delirium of Whitney Houston’s love song “I have nothing”, Laresa Kosloff took a camera into the gallery’s permanent collection and showed us the gaze of art-lovers in intimate moments with the old masters. The pitch of Whitney’s ecstasy – ‘Don’t you dare walk away/I have nothing/nothing/NOTHING /if I don’t have you’ – was counterpointed in ingenious banality by the backpacks, iphone cameras and water bottles of the visiting viewers.

Today’, as Barthes might say, portentously … Perhaps today is not a day that is equal to the rigours of systematising love.

This piece first appeared in eyeline #80

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Sally Is A Block of Ice


[A version of this article appeared in PhiloSophia 2:2 Summer 2012, the biannual e-journal of continental feminism published by SUNY press. ]

THERE IS a metaphor made famous in the analytic philosophical literature by John Searle et al: ‘Sally is a block of ice.’

I met this metaphor first as an undergraduate student in philosophy of language classes. I remember, then, feeling a wordless anxiety for Sally, for the ‘tone’ of this example interrupting, but not interrogated by, the discussion it was recruited to illustrate. Later I met Sally again, in papers given at philosophy conferences on metaphor in which, each time, this mention of Sally struck me as pointed but not observed.

John Searle claims that to say ‘Sally is a block of ice’ is to mean ‘Sally is an extremely unemotional and unresponsive person’. But this seems disingenuous, since the colour in the metaphor comes from innuendo of a sexual character, the echoes of the Ice Queen etc. And no doubt this is one reason why Searle would have adopted it, because it introduces the rhetorical colour of sexual intrigue into an apparently technical discourse in the philosophy of language.

But in his paper, this metaphor ‘Sally is a block of ice’, features along with other metaphors only as an example of the trope. She is there in the text to illustrate Searle’s thesis that metaphor has meaning only because what he calls ‘speaker’s meaning’ and ‘sentence meaning’ are two very different things. On this view, ‘words have only the meanings they have’ and it is speakers uttering them ‘in a way that departs from what they actually mean’ that allows the metaphor to operate.

Why would the speaker say anything other than what he meant? Why doesn’t he say, “Sally is an extremely unemotional and unresponsive person”? Since the ‘actual meaning’ of language remains unchanged by the use of metaphor in an example of it, the interesting effect of this theory of metaphor is that the speaker can still say that, while he may have said ‘Sally is a block of ice’, he didn’t mean it.

Sally is a metaphor

‘Sally is a block of ice’: this evocative metaphor, this provocative figure, conjures for me the dilemma that women in philosophy have found, seeking a philosophical account of identity for an identity politics while also trying to find a place for themselves in the Academy. Sally is a figure haunting the practice of English-speaking philosophy, where women are grudgingly admitted but, as Genevieve Lloyd has pointed out, disadvantaged by ‘inclusion without recognition of our difference’.

Unless she is frozen on the slab at the morgue, Sally is not obviously a block of ice. But if Sally were a block of ice, if her identity were as a block of ice, and if the copulative form accurately described her in her essence, as ‘a block of ice’, why would she appear to us in physical form to be a woman?

Between ‘This is Sally’ and ‘Sally is a block of ice’ lies a metaphysics of identity, stemming from the way that certain European languages tolerate the copula form to represent divergent senses, the ‘to be’ of identity and the ‘to be’ of attribution. I’ve written about the impact of this copula form for sexual difference elsewhere (Ferrell 2006).

While the copula assigns objects to subjects, it does so in an ambiguous manner. Sometimes we say things like: ‘Meg Ryan is Sally in the movie ‘Harry Met Sally’ on Channel 7 Sunday night’. Meg Ryan is Sally in the sense that she performs Sally. So, is Sally playing a part, then, when ‘Sally is a block of ice’?

Judith Butler would likely say she was, her femininity a masquerade. (Butler, 1990) Is Sally playing a part when ‘Sally is Sally’? Nietzsche would say so: ‘around every profound spirit a mask is continually growing’ … (Beyond Good & Evil) Nietzsche incriminated grammar or syntax in the reproduction of metaphysics, claiming philosophers are particularly gullible in this regard: ‘they always believe in reason as in a piece of the metaphysical world itself, this backward belief always reappears in them as an all-powerful regression’ (ibid, cited in Derrida, 1978). Because philosophy believes in its images as truth, and has no more sincere belief than in the imaginary of ‘truth’, playing a part becomes necessary in order to become what one is, at the same time as it becomes improper. I think this dilemma is particularly acute for Sally.

The interest of feminist philosophers in the exploration of images in philosophy stems from the bewilderment of being both inside and outside. The account of identity offered by some contemporary feminist philosophy is one that fits Sally. It tells her in what way her identity is compromised in its very form such that she is what she is not.

And it also tells her how there is a politics at stake, (the performance of her gender for others is her gender, says Butler) and why this is a violent act. It is not too much to say she must stake her life on this identity; or rather, that her life is staked for her in this identity – sexually available in virtue of being represented for another, open to be desired and even ravished; critiqued for her own lack of response to this flattery.

A stake that commands a politics; ‘Sally is a woman’ – she is this, even when this identity misrepresents her. Indeed, even though her identity (as testified in her license or passport) represents her for the purposes of sustaining her claim to life in the modern polis, it inevitably misrepresents her at the level of her being. And worse, it must misrepresent her in order to represent her, mistaking her for something or someone she is not, in order to identify her at all.

Why go on about this aporia? Politically, the imputation of a mistaken identity is better than having no identity at all, and in a world of political causes, the slanders of gender in philosophy are surely overshadowed by the displacement of the stateless refugee or the dispossession of the Indigenous group? Why on earth would the impossibility of this necessity entertain, when there are things to be done, and after all, everyone is manifestly someone?

Because, otherwise, ‘Sally is a block of ice’, in a deep freeze of attribution, the victim of an ambiguity in syntax. To claim an identity, she needs to understand how it is done.

It somehow shocks me, in a way that Searle’s other examples of metaphor – ‘time crept by’ etc – do not, to hear this slander of Sally uttered so frequently and insouciantly as proof of something philosophically so unrelated to her. I am shocked at Sally’s predicament, a woman identified as frigid by a philosophical text to philosophical readers, as though she lay on the table at Charcot’s demonstrations: ‘Gentlemen, the hysteric’s symptom is in reality an expression of repressed sexual wishes …’

This metaphor in this context – a philosopher writing on metaphor – becomes to my mind an obscene gesture in the guise of a philosophical point.  By obscene I mean an unconscious protrusion into a highly conscious and indeed self-conscious discourse being delivered on an operation of language.

Worse, it is a protrusion of language into this discourse on language, and one that by its very example qualifies the point it is recruited to justify. If it were designed to show that the metaphor and its literal meaning can be distinguished, and language remain uncontaminated by life as its mere commentary, then it fails in the case of ‘Sally is a block of ice’.

In its lewdness, and its malice, ‘Sally is a block of ice’ sticks out of the philosophical imaginary, crudely identifying the nom de père with the droit de Seigneur. ‘Sally is a block of ice’ shows that: metaphor is never mere metaphor, and one can never succeed in using a piece of language (especially a statement of the form of the copula) only metaphorically, but will always take something of life into the meaning and more disturbingly will put something back, in this case, into the production of woman as an object valued (or not) for being responsive to subjects (putatively male).

And perversely it demonstrates at the same time that every statement, even the most literal of identity statements – ‘Sally is Sally’ – operates metaphorically. That is, it cannot completely identify its subject with its object, but must always import something of one into the other, if only in the imputation of being.

Obliterating her identity by violently effacing her in this metaphor, forcing himself upon her textuallyand so indifferently by merely mentioning her reluctance as her failing -  in mentioning “Sally is a block of ice”, the philosopher of language upholds a metaphysics with a piece of grammar. Speaking metaphorically, of course, it is the sexual assault of Sally in a secluded part of the campus.

Perhaps this seems too psychoanalytic, too deconstructive, too floridly suspicious a pursuit of metaphor. Why think like this, in such an unruly way, about a perfectly respectable (indeed, a dry) account of metaphor frankly given and in broad daylight? As Matisse is reported to have said to a viewer who asked him ‘Why do you always paint women as ugly?’: ‘Madam, that is a painting, not a woman’.

Some would protest that the philosopher didn’t mean anything by the phrase, he was merely using an example to illustrate his point, indeed he wasn’t using Sally at all, Sally was a ‘mere mention’. A mere mention of her humiliation, to a phalanx of philosophical subjects, all of whom suppose they know what a woman wants?

And: what if she doesn’t want? Then they find she is wanting. Who will know whether she ‘really’ gives her consent, who will be able to identify the moment of truth in which her ‘no’ meant ‘yes’? (As Derrida brings out in another political context, testimony is sworn to secrecy: ‘I can only testify, in the strict sense of the word, from the instant when no one can, in my place, testify to what I do.’ (Derrida 2000, 30) The accused will always keep the truth to himself even if he makes a full confession.)

Sally’s inclusion without recognition of her difference is an inclusion on condition of a disavowal of her difference. In the psycho-sexual drama of the imaginary, her difference is recognised only at the level that it makes a difference to the man of reason. Her meaning to him, as a site of recognition of his sex, compromises her inclusion.

In whatever way a woman is in philosophy – whether she chooses to use her gender, or allow it to be merely mentioned, in her philosophical labour – she will every now and then find herself in Sally’s position, facing a sexual objectification, vilification or assault that renders ambiguous her part in the intellectual endeavour. Living the trope, being the body onto which the figure of woman is projected, can be disturbing in real life. Plus de metaphor! cries Derrida. It is too much, complains Sally, that I should be reduced to being a woman just when I thought I was becoming-philosopher …

Whatever else Sally is in philosophy – whether she retreats to being ‘unusually unemotional and unresponsive’, or ignites as hysterical and alive to paranoia in every philosophical utterance – Sally is a metaphor. That may be why, as a woman in philosophy, she would make a study of it. If Sally is a metaphor, a figure of speech, she might well study figures – the biographies of philosophers, the literary tropes of irony and the devices of narrative and genre, even the statistics of inclusion and exclusion.


Figures of Woman

Despite the action of Equal Opportunity over twenty years in Anglophone universities, Sally Haslanger’s 2008 paper ‘Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone) remains timely and clear. She quotes several pages of data on publication and tenure rates by gender in philosophy. Not one figure comes close to the ratio of men and women in the wider US population, and almost all figures would suggest that there is at best one woman to every five men teaching and researching in philosophy.

Likewise, a report commissioned by the Australasian Association of Philosophy and presented to a seminar on women’s position in philosophy at the Australian National University in 2009 shows that numbers of women in Australian university philosophical positions have not improved in that decade, and specifically, numbers of senior philosophical staff who are women have declined.

What is disturbing is that while the gender debate seems to have moved on, so that terms like sexism and feminism are almost ‘old hat’, the figures suggest the reality is unchanged. To explain this, Haslanger adopts some concepts from the social sciences literature on discrimination; the schema provides ‘the currently most compelling model for understanding unconscious bias’; stereotype threat explains tasks ‘for which negative association exists between the task domain and the minority group’. This translates as the experience of philosophy, understood to be a masculine pursuit, clashing with perceptions of women and feminine values thereby tending to disable women practitioners of it.

The diagnosis is useful, but it doesn’t go far into the phenomenon; certainly not far enough to engage with its virulence. Images of bias, perceptions of threat and more generally, the action of any unconscious idea governing an institution, beyond statistical representation, call for reflection on the politics of representation.

That reflection has been going on, in the work of Genevieve Lloyd and others on the imaginary and the imagination in philosophy since the nineteen eighties. (cf Braidotti 1994, Butler 1990, le Doeuff 1989, Diprose 1994, Gatens 1996, Grosz 1989, Lloyd 1984,  et al) When Lloyd published The Man of Reason in 1984 perhaps it was imagined that providing her illuminating argument on the place of women in the philosophical schemas of the West would somehow correct its misogyny. Perhaps it was expected that reason, so definitively demonstrated, would prevail. It did not; it has not.

Reading the history of philosophy, according to the tradition, Lloyd nevertheless turned history on philosophy. She showed the historically contingent in the philosophical idea, and provided a compelling case for concluding that no philosophical generalisation that ignores its history will survive it.

But at the same time, history was not given a place outside thought, in the manner of some criticism that appeals to an historical fact of the matter immune from the formulations of our ideas. History was completely implicated in Lloyd’s portrait of the relation between time and consciousness. As she writes in her more recent Being in Time, ‘it is impossible to think time without also thinking thought.’ The history of philosophy is both historical and philosophical, and its common currency is language. And in an earlier paper on Derrida and metaphor, Lloyd summarised his claim in ‘White Mythology’ with striking clarity: Derrida’s point is not that metaphor is the opposition of reason, she wrote, it is that it is so for philosophy.

This insight is related to the reason why reason did not prevail in the wake of The Man of Reason. It is metaphor as the outside of reason that complicates a philosophy of language. As Nietzsche argued: ‘Language … has within it an illogical element, metaphor. Its primary force operates an identification of the nonidentical; it is therefore an operation of the imagination. The existence of concepts, forms etc rests thereupon’ (‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral sense’ as translated by Derrida in  ‘Supplement of Copula’.)

Figures of Philosophy

I wonder if Sally made it, into a tenured job, on to the conference program, on to the Equal Opportunity Committee? Does she attend conferences, attend sessions, busy herself with academic housekeeping like interviewing for hiring etc? Is she a mother, and does she bring her children with her to the conference, or if not, who is taking care of them while she is away?

Some exclusions in the philosophical imaginary are more emphatic than others. How many of Haslanger’s statistics, of women participating in philosophy, are Afro-American, Hispanic, Native American? I do not see Sally anywhere in philosophy as a woman of Australian Aboriginal descent. The statistics are blunt. To my knowledge, there are no Koori professors of philosophy in Australia. There is a famous Indigenous woman professor – Marcia Langton – who predictably is Professor of Indigenous Studies and whose best-known work is on representations of Australian Aboriginal people in popular culture (‘I heard it on the radio etc’)

In Lloyd’s paper ‘No Man’s Land’, an Australian philosopher finally took on the question of race in the shameful silence surrounding the dispossession of Australian Aboriginal people. She articulated something that I had often worried about – how could a woman in philosophy not extend the critiques of philosophy’s exclusions to include race as it included gender?

In that paper, the stakes of philosophical naivety, no less than those of historical inaction, are boldly drawn. A whole concept of nation might be built on a theoretical vanity about the nature of the human, as it proved to be in the doctrine of terra nullius that rationalised the conquest of Australia by Europeans by force. (cf Ferrell, 2012: pp) Her argument revealed to me the consequent violence that moves to territorialise the space where reason should be.

While in Man of Reason, Lloyd suggests in the polite language of the academic that there may have been an error in Western philosophy, in ‘No Man’s Land’ the voice of reason is sharper. By tolerating the ‘unthought’ to collude in thought, philosophy has aided and abetted, if it hasn’t provoked, injustice.

The important challenge in this argument is explicitly drawn out in the conclusion of that paper: Lloyd provides an important warning to feminist philosophy not to perpetuate the error by investing in its own image. Lloyd’s use of the ideas of philosophical images, imaginary and imagination is prescient in relation to the challenge offered in postcolonial contexts by difference of all kinds.

She writes: ‘The challenge is to refine the strategies for thinking our way into that past and its processes of exclusion and constitution, and for appropriating its intellectual possibilities, the better to understand not only the exclusions we have suffered but also those in which we have been complicit.’(2000, 12) Marguerite La Caze notably develops this intuition in her book The Analytic Imaginary, where she seeks to ‘show how particular images can work to exclude different sets of ideas, including feminist ones.’ (2002, 16)

The persistence of the ‘masculine schema of philosophy’ has taken place within an institution, the University, that has undergone radical changes in other schemas, from collegial to corporate and from independent to instrumental. The figure of philosophy is powerfully engaged to justify the existence of the humanities in a neo-liberal economic climate. Philosophy is cultural prestige, and the Arts Faculty will harbour it as an icon of intellectual life for as long as this unthought nostalgia carries part of its ‘branding’.

At the same time, the competitive practice of philosophy on the global scene effects a more complicated appeasement with the instrumentalism of the ‘university sector’. Meaning that, for Sally, the reasons why she got into philosophy – her love of contemplation and clear thinking and large, enduring ideas that was inculcated in undergraduate days – will come increasingly under pressure as she works in the university.

There is now such a thing as professional philosophy, and the rhetorical gulf between the ‘social scientist’ and the ‘philosopher’ calls to be analysed. Philosophy professors are regarded as professionals along with doctors, engineers and other educated secular workers. They are no longer regarded as clerics, although referred to as ‘white collar’, and frequently still paid by the church or its heirs, the state and public institutions. Yet the philosophical imaginary persists as an unthought in the daily life of philosophy departments from Oxford to Ohio, Harvard to Hobart.

Philosophy been changed from ‘queen of the sciences’ to  ‘departmental budget spreadsheet’ in less than twenty years. The change in the university powerfully proves that it is possible to change schemas. Here are some of the ways Sally might have experienced this change to the schema of the philosopher:

• She has less and less time for research and writing, because she is struggling to keep up with her teaching, advising and administrative workload: when she comes up for promotion she is knocked back on her poor research record

•  The faculty has a budget ‘crisis’ and her position is restructured/ is reclassified from academic to general/becomes targeted for redundancy

• As a sole parent, she finds she becomes exhausted trying to carry a senior role in the department as well as domestic responsibilities: She is obliged to take stress leave

• She finds she is publishing more than a male superior, which attracts jealousy: when the opportunity arises in the form of ‘budget cuts’, he forces her resignation/ refuses her tenure

• She finds she is publishing more than a female superior, which attracts jealousy and when &etc (see above)

All the while, if she is a ‘feminist philosopher’, she will have analysed the conceptual causes of which ‘women (not) in philosophy’ is a symptom; the dichotomies on which thought depends, the cultural contingency of cherished universals, the formation of reality in representations of it. And while she may have deconstructed this, rendering the figure incoherent according to the best Derridean practice, the effect of it persists. Feminist philosophy has tried justice and equal rights, and it has tried the politics of difference, but still the symptom persists. The Man of Reason seems not to have morphed much at all. And the philosophical woman’s experience, of maternity and caring responsibilities, of interrupted career paths and unsuperannuated retirement, remain outside the philosophical self-image.

What is the philosophical status of the heartfelt remarks that Haslanger is compelled to make on the situation as she has lived it? She writes: ‘There is a deep well of rage inside of me. Rage about how I as an individual have been treated in philosophy; rage about how others I know have been treated; and rage about the conditions that I’m sure affect many women and minorities in philosophy, and have caused many others to leave …’ She reports:‘ … I was in constant dialogue with myself about whether to quit philosophy, even give up tenure, to do something else. In spite of my deep love for philosophy, it just didn’t seem worth it …’ (Haslanger, 210)

What is rage to philosophy? What can it mean to love reason? Alert to stereotype threat, that women are ‘more in touch with their feelings’, we should nevertheless ask how the affective aspects of rationality, not just its lapses and silences, function as necessary philosophical exclusions.

The man of reason excludes his sentiments from the properly philosophical. While he may refer to his feelings in the preface, it typically does no heavy lifting within the argument.

Where would a ‘deep love of philosophy’ come from, for example? The glamour of philosophy, its figurative potency, begins in ordinary life where a philosopher, like a writer, is a mythico-heroic creature living in a more romantic time or place than the present one. Plato, Boethius, Descartes, Kant, Sartre: Sally may observe this oddity when talking to her neighbours. While other academics say unselfconsciously, ‘Oh, I’m a psychologist’ or ‘I’m an anthropologist’, she finds it hard to announce ‘Hi, I’m a philosopher.’ The cultural overdetermination of the pursuit means that the claim seems exorbitant. No one lives next door to Plato or Sartre.

Transferentially, the history of philosophy is a canon with all the reverences and idealisations that this word conveys. Philosophy as a profession, the philosopher as professor, still carries the ecclesiastical color in its language that once governed its institutional reality. The historical reality of philosophy today is that profession means something else.

Joanne Faulkner’s recent study of the ethics of reading Nietzsche is instructive. Remembering that Nietzsche wrote of metaphor that its ‘primary force operates an identification of the nonidentical’ and is thereby an act of imagination, Faulkner examines the identifications that Nietzsche’s readers are impelled to make with his ideas, his images and his styles in order to read him at all.

She draws on a psychoanalytic method of reading that attracts suspicion in philosophy to the extent it constructs a labyrinth of concepts around a postulation of unconscious thought. But this method has, as its strength, the forensic detailing of habits of identification and other affective relations.

Faulkner’s analysis brings sharply into view both the reader’s attraction for, and the projective illusion of, placing affect outside the operation of philosophy.



Reading Philosophy

‘The desire to see philosophy continue: this is something that preoccupies us all. Yet have we thought ill enough of this discipline that we love? I do not exclude myself. On occasion, I have maintained that this discourse which claims to understanding everything better than any other is a mode of phantasmagorical hegemony; all the same, in it I saw my road to freedom.’ (le Doeuff, 1)

To analyze a ‘deep love of philosophy’, one could look to Michele le Doeuff; her outline of the philosophical imaginary is can engage the rhetorical positions that can hurt. It is striking that le Doeuff and Haslanger – twenty years apart – report this pain, avowing a personal relationship to the discipline of philosophy.

This attests to transference and the mode of reproduction used by philosophy – the mentoring of aspirants by the leading figures to become more like them. The process of peer review, given this collegial inflection, becomes frustratingly conservative. The selection of successors can be a crushing experience for those not chosen. And women students are not commonly the first identification of the (male) professoriate, for the reasons Haslanger and others discuss.

This is the practice across the humanities and may not be an exclusion peculiar to philosophy even though it is felt to be’personal’. Maybe women in philosophy are impatient and not interpreting the figures correctly: for how long were there no women in philosophy? What is the historical trajectory of the statistics of women’s participation, over, say, the last hundred years?  What are the stats like over the time since Kant first drew a salary?

‘[I]t is hard to gain a clear idea of the right way to speak as a feminist woman philosopher, except on some specific questions … For the most common philosophical practice comes down to establishing that one is wrong to speak, whatever one says.’ (le Doueff, 17)

Yet I have found it frustrating that le Doeuff goes into the philosophical imaginary only so far as to identify figures – like the Heloise complex etc – without more analysis of rhetorical operations. A kind of forensics is needed that takes on the rhetoric of philosophy as at least as significant as its methods in getting concepts moving.

The figure is not opposed to philosophical thought, despite the philosophical prejudice. It is not the submerged evidence of primitive thinking at work beneath the surface of reason. Rather, the figure is an anchor point for a whole chain of reasoning that is animated not only by metaphoric identifications but through all the keys of genre. It justifies speaking of recognizable philosophical signifiers (as Derrida has done) that mark a characteristic animation. The philosophical affects leave their traces in the prose, and their energies provide its pulse.

Genre, the structure of rules that generate a particular kind of intelligibility, is a critical concept for such analysis. It is genre that produces texts and subjects as philosophically legible to each other. And the mechanics of genre is behind the alarming sensation that ‘we can’t get there from here’ – why it becomes impossible to argue for ‘Sally is a block of ice’ as an abuse of metaphor inside the standard philosophy of language.  (See Bakhtin’s outline of language and speech utterance in ‘The Problems of Speech Genres’.)

The other critical concept is affect, the transfer that enables the text to solicit the subject who reads it into the appropriate textual relationship. This affect produces the ambivalence of the ‘philosophical subject’, a signified of the text at the same time as a nomination of its reader. The affect generates a relation which is properly described as transferential.

It is a concept designating a personal experience of the reader only secondarily; the affect is as much a structural predisposition of the text. An example would be Umberto Eco observation of the creating of competence in the reader by a text. He refers to a fragment from the novel, Waverley: “What could my readers have expected from the chivalrous epithets of Howard, Mordaunt, Mortimer or Stanley … but pages of inanity …?”

‘After having read this passage, whoever approaches Waverley (even one century later and even – if the book has been translated into another language – from the point of view of a different intertextual competence) is asked to assume that certain epithets are meaning “chivalry” and that there is a whole tradition of chivalric romances displaying certain deprecatory stylistic and narrative properties.’(Eco, pp426 )

The deployment of these two concepts – genre and affect – is drawn from textual studies outside philosophy of language. It offers an explanation of Haslanger’s ‘deep well of rage’, and of the love of philosophy, that doesn’t put these ideas into the margins of philosophy. It gives an understanding of how the occurrence of the metaphor ‘Sally is a block of ice’ is implicated philosophically in the failure of women philosophers to thrive in the discipline.

There is a need to examine the rhetoric of philosophy to understand why there are not enough women in philosophy. Philosophers, including women, need to take apart their identifications with philosophy, from the ‘consolation of philosophy’ to les Philosophes and the American Philosophical Association, to extract the bits that are ‘love’ from the bits that are ‘transference’. It will take philosophical analysis of the practices of philosophy, as well as of professions, to chart how a woman’s ‘inclusion without recognition of her difference’ continues to make her vulnerable in the philosophical profession.

This is in order for philosophy, and not just women in philosophy, to live the new condition of the philosophical subject in a corporate university as more than just a marketing pitch. Philosophy is well-resourced for such analysis given its history and methods. But it will take philosophers to want to question that ‘deep love of philosophy’, and to wish to interrogate this beloved man of reason, to bring about changes in its imaginary.

Will that desire be ignited out of the indignation generated in the wake of corporatising the university? Will philosophers’ dissatisfaction with their new place in the schemas provoke them to self-reflection? Will the best practice of university human resources policy coerce the change through the law of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination?

Maybe. Maybe not.

(an earlier version of this paper was delivered to the tribute on the work of Genevieve Lloyd, American Philosophical Association Convention, Washington, December 2006)


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Butler, Judith 1990 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity Routledge: New York

Blanchot, Maurice & Jacques Derrida 2000 The Instant of My Death/ Demeure: Fiction and Testimony Elizabeth Rottenberg (trans) Meridian: Stanford

Derrida, Jacques 1978 ‘Supplement of Copula’ in Writing and Difference Alan Bass (trans) University of Chicago Press: Chicago

_____ 2000

Diprose, Rosalyn 1994 The Bodies of Women Routledge: London

Doeuff, Michèle le 1989 The Philosophical Imaginary Stanford University Press: Stanford California

_____ 1991 Hipparchia’s Choice: an essay concerning women, philosophy, etc trans Trista Selous Blackwell: Oxford UK & Cambridge MA

Eco, Umberto 1984 The Role of the Reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts Indiana University Press: Bloomington

Faulkner, Joanna 2010 Dead Letters to Nietzsche: on the necromantic act of reading philosophy Athens: Ohio University Press

Ferrell, Robyn 2012 Sacred Exchanges: Images in Global Context Columbia University Press: New York

____            2006 Copula: Sexual Technologies Reproductive Powers SUNY Press: Albany, New York

Haslanger, Sally 2008 ‘Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)’ Hypatia 23(2) Spring pp210-233

Gatens, Moira 1996 Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality Routledge: London & New York

Grosz, Elizabeth 1989 Sexual Subservisions: Three French Feminists Allen & Unwin: Sydney

La Caze, Marguerite 2002 The Analytic Imaginary Cornell University Press: Ithaca & London

Lloyd, Genevieve 1984 The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy Methuen: London

_______  1993   Being in Time Routledge: London

_______  2000 ‘No Man’s Land’ in Hypatia (15)2

Nietzsche, Frederich Beyond Good and Evil

_____ ‘On Lies and Truth in a Non-moral Sense’

Searle, John R. 1979 ‘Metaphor’ in Expression and Meaning: studies in the theory of speech acts Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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