Sceptical in deed


Ann Ferran ‘A photograph is made to be seen’

‘The Sceptical Image’, Sydney College of the Arts Galleries; in conjunction with The Image In Question conference, University of Sydney, August 2014

There are so many openings for scepticism (if not cynicism) in the contemporary environment of art in the university that it had to lead to fruitful reflection seeing it exhibited.
‘The Sceptical Image’ accompanied ‘The Image In Question’ conference at the Sydney College of the Arts and was billed as integrating creative art research into the conference. The show was an interesting collation of some vivid work by leading Australian theoretically-informed art practitioners, all of them associated as students or teachers with university art schools.
The conference led this integration with a video installation, ‘Madame B: Explorations in Emotional Capitalism’, by Mieke Bal & Michelle Williams Gamaker. Professor Bal, from the University of Amsterdam, has a long-standing reputation as a theorist and was also the keynote speaker at the conference.
If an image can be said to be sceptical, it may be because of the established ‘theoretical fact’ that internal to it is a double-take. It represents something that it is not, and which is no longer present. From this feature can be built a logic of paradox around the image, in which it is never what it seems, pulling in all manner of art-historical, political and philosophical scepticisms.
So, as the conference explored, ‘scepticism is part of the life of images’(1), and the explosion of photography, film and video means we now live in an image-saturated, image-proliferating world, challenging the traditional complacency that seeing is believing.
John Di Stefano’s ‘Merge’ and ‘Register’ were textbook renditions of the paradox. ‘Register’, a series of large photograms, utilised the fortuitous misalignments of data known as moirés, ‘common unwanted residue of digital and print imagery when pixilation or banding misregisters’, to produce cryptic abstractions.
‘Merge’, a video work, moved into greater and greater enlargement of an image, unveiling ‘microscopic structures’. While the abstract develops, indexality is preserved since it remains a photographic image. The artist finds ‘this disruption is indeed the ground for scepticism’.
photoRyszard Dabek’s ‘Phantom Bid’ (video still, at right) makes the point vivaciously with a video setting of a catalogue of movie memorabilia from an auction by 20th Century Fox.
‘This is the chair that Tyrone Powell lent upon, this is the bottle from which Bogart’s shaking lips imbibed.’ Movie stills, studio promotional shots and catalogue images evoke the mytho-historical space of the Hollywood studio era, in the provenance of the actual object.
But, as the artist writes, freed from the context of the catalogue, the images take on ’their own blank strangeness’. Dabek is clearly informed by a concept of the uncanny, which has a developed theoretical provenance in academic debates over many decades.
And it is the uncanny look to the odd array of objects – toy bears on wheels, old cabinets, and scenes of actors in antique conviviality – that evokes the dislocation of these images from their context. This too is evidence of scepticism, and accounts for part of the visual delight. The sumptuousness of the era made strange is further proof.
Merilyn Fairskye’s ‘March’, an atmospheric and menacing work, traces ‘faultlines between empire and ordinary people’ in sequences showing navy shipyards, Russian monuments and sound grabs from Russian and British TV.
The artist is intent on affective reactions in this work – ‘There is a deliberate sense of agitation in this video’. Sequences are partial and elliptical, but subtitles remind you that ‘on 19 March 2014, Vladimir Putin formally annexed Crimea to the Russian Federation’, and there is recurrent footage of a chained-up dog barking. ‘The rest is up to you.’
A demonstration of ‘spectator-made meaning’ is intensified by the insertion of a small video loop at one side, replaying the conversation held by rebels as they discover that Flight MH17 was a civilian plane. Scepticism of a political kind is the connection with the conference theme.
A stand-out series from Tanya Peterson, ‘Available Light’, was six large inkjet prints of the late afternoon light on a hot February day, when bushfire fills the sky with smoke. They were accompanied by a ruminative piece of writing that draws in star maps and the aerial images of the bushfires taken at the time from the International Space Station.
‘When I think about photography, I think about light’, she writes. This is ‘thinking’ about light that is more than academic thought, and that shows the concentration of ideas in the visual that can animate theory in a way unique to creative work. Theorists struggle to articulate the specificity of practice-led research but Petersen’s work seemed to meet one criterion suggested by Lelia Green: ‘the only methodology available through which to pursue some research questions’. (2)
Other work in the show came from Cherine Fahd, Anne Ferran, Justin Trendall, Janelle Evans, Yanai Toister, Margaret Seymour and Stefan Popescu.


Cherine Fahd ‘Body Beautiful’

But now let’s suppose the whole thing to be an exhibition: the medium of a conference, the setting of the Sydney College of the Arts, the occasion of an international art theorist’s visit and keynote, the surroundings of the ‘Art and the Document’ research cluster as part of a university research self-description. Its place against the background of the research culture in higher education and the material base of salaried work in art etc.
What does it mean to ‘integrate’ creative art research? The curators, Merilyn Fairskye and Nicholas Tsoutas, note that the exhibition works respond to the theme of scepticism ‘within the conference’s context of critical inquiry’. Which seems to put the event squarely into the current necessity to make art a kind of research as per the instrumental priorities that have taken the university from hallowed hall to export engine in twenty-five years.
As Andrew McNamara puts it, in his ‘Six rules for practice-led research’, ‘the integration of art schools into the university-led, tertiary education framework is still viewed with scepticism as a de facto process of institutional and educational homogenization.’ (3)
Does the scepticism of the context vitiate the supposed claim to engagement with the idea of the sceptical image? Or does it demonstrate it? The staging of such an event rarely reduces to its instrumental ends. The art works in the show stepped around the way research dictates can flatten the artistic impulse, and they also avoided the inchworm effect of ‘measuring the marigolds’.
Do they stand for real engagement with the sceptical image in company with the more academic papers on the conference program? This is less sure, since the sceptical image was always a theoretical device invented for discursive purposes, and demonstrating the sceptical in practice is no more original than outlining the theory of it.
The exhibition can respond to ‘the theme of scepticism within the conference’s context of critical inquiry’ only by accepting that the context for scepticism is critical inquiry.
Creative arts research will be free of scepticism when it gets to define its own context for the (sceptical) image.

(1) All quotes are from the conference abstracts published on ‘The Image In Question’ website at unless otherwise noted.
(2) Lelia Green, ‘Recognising practice-led research … at last!’
presented at Hatched 07 Arts Research Symposium available at
(3) Andrew McNamara, ‘Six rules for practice-led research’ in Text Special Issue 14 October 2012: ‘Beyond practice-led research’

This review appeared in the January issue of eyeline

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Wild ideas

Philosophy deals in wild ideas. But what is an idea?

Ideas today are encrypted in talk of facts and figures, and hidden in screen-size images of objects of desire. We have seen these image-objects on TV or the net, and we carry them around in our heads as unbidden thoughts, as automatic reactions and received postures.
Ideas are taken out of our hands in this process of encryption. We let these images do our thinking for us. ‘Technological advances’, ‘single mothers’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘budget shortfalls’, ‘celebrity lifestyles’ – all ideas that are captured now as images. We struggle to explain them but feel them to be real.

Consumer culture is urging us to dumb down, to narcotise on the private pleasures of spending and watching, and not to do anything too hard unless we have to – certainly ‘don’t think too much’.

Ideas are received as fragments of the ‘24-hour news cycle’, the ‘sound bite’, the head line and the slogan. They occur as deceptively self-explanatory. Double-speak is everywhere: ‘voluntary redundancy’, ‘everyday low prices’, ‘adult literature’ etc. Things are ‘new and improved’, bureaucrats are ‘serving the people’, things are done ‘in the public interest’ (in the past, were things old and unimproved, politicians self-serving and the public interest not observed?).

We know we are being conned, but because it is the same wherever we look, we accept this suspicion as our private judgement and consume their prescriptions anyway – along with the travel the clothes the family the ‘lifestyle’, all the superficial freedoms of birds in gilded cages …

In consequence, the running of our own lives is surrendered; to ‘red tape’, by-laws, regulations, bureaucracy. We are forced into passivity by every thing from traffic fines and license fees to customer help lines, health care claim forms, finance applications and insurance assessments. We live inside a fine mesh of prohibitions nudging us back into those gilded cages.

It’s as though we inhabit whole aviaries of convention and acceptability, headspaces just large enough for an ordinary life, but in which our freedom of movement is subtly attenuated. Freedom of choice is imperceptibly constrained by market forces, and freedom of speech is surreptitiously governed by anxieties, including the fear of being thought ignorant and the ignominy of not being heard.

Philosophy was born of democracy. ‘Everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ The rise of democracy, the promotion of mass literacy, the development of free choice ought to mean we can all now can discern exactly what is going on around us.

And yet, has there ever been a period of such deception in the authorised view of things versus the actual experience of life? The 21st century seems to be shaping up to be the century of greatest illusions, where we are urged to live and aspire to things – like freedom, prosperity, peace and self-expression – that are nothing like the realities we encounter pursuing them.

It is as an era in which we are trained in self-deception. From instant gratification to equal opportunity to happy marriages, fulfilling careers, beautiful bodies, amazing sex and health and wellbeing throughout our increased life spans … we are trained to deny the realities, to overlook the inequities and to understand our own discontent, where it breaks through, as pain for which we medicate rather than adjust real circumstances.

The increasing redundancy of thinking for oneself, the continuing temptation to outsource our dealing with big ideas is not in our interest. The strong methods and vigorous techniques of a kind of philosophy are needed more than ever today. The unexamined life is not worth living, said Plato. Philosophy is the oldest search for truth, and its name means love of wisdom. But just when it is most needed, philosophy as it is taught now has passed up its responsibility to truth-telling.

The ordinary person would be hard-pressed to specify how philosophy has anything to do with their lives. Despite its reputation as a repository of human wisdom, philosophy is now just a soothing word for nothing vital, an antique practice for gentlemen along the same lines as polo.

Philosophy has thrown in the towel on the subject of wisdom – it embarrasses professional philosophers to even use this word. Instead they create an esoteric vocabulary through which they joust with each other in academic cloisters far from the madding crowd.

There is in feral philosophy a strong streak of rebelling against the proper, the official and the academic. It reclaims the place of thinking as everyone’s birthright, thinking as what comes naturally, as something that shouldn’t be taken from ordinary people and locked up in a glass case in an ivory tower where only a certain kind of grandee can have access to it.

The history of philosophy is full of protest, of people asserting their independent thought in the face of tyranny and ostracism. They have done so because of the realisation that life isn’t worth living without it.

It’s in philosophy’s nature to be oppositional; it’s in its history. The consolation of philosophy was written by Boethius from his prison cell. Foucault was thinking through the history of sexuality in the gay bathhouses of San Francisco. Socrates declares his love for the law as he swallows the hemlock he has been condemned to drink as his death sentence. Agamben writes of what would be ‘bare life’, in the shadow of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Philosophy goes feral in response to the disenfranchising of ideas. Philosophy going feral involves going beyond the ordinary forms of truth offered us today – the scientific facts, the economic figures, the sales data, the polls, the medical research, the political spin and the self-help gurus – to understand the stranger contradictions of twenty first century first world life.

In feral philosophy, aesthetics  – the creation of beauty, desire and judgment (its traditional subjects) – would be taken into shopping malls, museum cafes and media outlets where today we find value produced as a commodity for purchase.

Ethics, the place of ideas about living the good life, would be taken up in our relations to romantic love, the family and among democratic citizens. Our ideas about how to live are dictated by what’s possible in the Real World; what’s ‘normal’ according to sociological research, and what we’re worth, as outlined in self-help books. The global village is a large place, but it’s where we now get to speak about our duties to others.

Metaphysics, traditionally the space for discernment of reality, would be found in evaluating the science that makes us who we are – from biology to medicine, psychiatry to anthropology to technology. The area is dominated by discussions of the relation of body and mind, especially as science now reduces the mind to the brain as a special case of the body, while abstracting what were uniquely human capacities into the virtual space of artificial intelligence.

And logic, perhaps the least understood of all the philosophical branches, would become the place to analyse the thought-systems that make our world make sense. Things become intelligible today through information, the market and bureaucracy. These central principles organise everyday life, as the world wide web catches us all up in its nets.

The practice of a feral philosophy would look at the big ideas as they happen to us in the real world, which is itself one of the most potent of the big ideas we live with. It would explore why it is that things are not as they seem, and how to bring the difference between truth and illusion into focus.

This is the first of many posts on this trajectory. Look for the category ‘feral philosophy’, and follow it under the rubrics of aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics and logic.

[A version of this piece will appear in the next issue of Unlikely: journal of creative arts]

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Whitefella Worship



Four old Warlpiri women artists, and their daughter, granddaughter and great- granddaughter, came down to Sydney from Lajamanu on the edge of the Tanami desert, for a workshop to paint their jukurrpa.

We set them up in a studio on the top floor of the College of Fine Arts, with a deep balcony and a view to the harbour. They had yards of Belgian linen, litre bottles of acrylic paint, brushes and bamboo skewers with which to make dots. They were paid by the hour and the resulting paintings they retain as a collection.

This research project invited them to share some women’s business though painting some of their traditional designs for our instruction. This idealism was perhaps honoured more in the breach. My enduring lesson from this intercultural event was how we turned out to be whitefellas, with all the complicated responsibility and shame that should bring home.

How little I got to know them. I know they like chicken and chips, but not the trendy Portuguese type – ‘Too spicy, Napaljarri!’ – and lemon soft drink, and they did repeatedly ask to go shopping. Not an unnatural request when you’re in the Big Smoke and you’ve just been paid.

I took them shopping to Bondi Junction, but the mall was overwhelming, with its five floors of fashion stores and a tower of moving escalators in the atrium. Myra wouldn’t chance them, she remained marooned on the top floor and we had to rescue her via the lifts, which were out the back. Then we spent fifteen minutes, out on the street, waiting for a taxi that would pick up blackfellas.


The studio space of concrete and glass took on a little of the look of a desert camp, with paintings unfinished being walked across on the floor, and tea brewed in a billy, and the quiet intentness of concentration going on in the middle of a parade of people walking in and out – to use the urn or the sink, to have a smoke on the balcony – and the tide of other obligations – to pick up the school-age children or pacify the toddler or move the cars so they wouldn’t get booked.

We had plenty of kids, but no dogs, which I gathered was a short-coming. Lily told me about her dogs over lunch of chicken and chips, and she showed me on her tiny spindly calf how they would bite. She and Rosie told me about lots of other things that lunch time, but most of them in Warlpiri, and I repeated, as my contribution, ‘I’m sorry I don’t speak Warlpiri. I’m afraid I don’t really understand’. Lynette said later: ‘Them old ladies, they really funny. They been hit over the head too many times’. She said it with a classical Aboriginal dryness that makes me laugh.

We were given skin names to smooth the interaction with the Aboriginal group, names given by the old ladies. They called me Napaljarri, making me a grandaughter to Lynnette, an aunty-niece with Myra and Lily, and mother-daughter with Molly and Rosie.

My son was given the Warlpiri name Jupurrurla. His English name was, coincidentally, kumanjai – that is, shared by a relative who had recently died and was thereby subject to the Aboriginal mourning practice that the names of the dead not be pronounced. Protocol required he not be called by his ‘real’ name in the hearing of the Aboriginal people, because it may give offence.

This edict hurt me in an explicit but surprising way. I found myself cut off from a vocalising that expresses my special connection to this child, and which carries the practice of love. The effect was the feeling that my son and I were being separated, and I resented it viscerally. My hurt showed up in my inability to adequately pronounce ‘Jupurrurla’. While I learned to say many other Warlpiri words, I could never say Jupurrurla without stumbling over it. This became an embarrassment, as I stumbled and Lynnette begged me to use his English name: ‘Don’t worry!’, she cried.

This small experience hurt more than I would have credited. So I feel dreadful when I hear stories of the stolen children, who had their names changed so they would forget their mothers. They didn’t. Instead, they cried themselves to sleep in dormitories at missions like the one at Moore River.

My son picked up on my affect, and complained that he didn’t like ‘that silly name’, and didn’t want to be called that. I tried hard to persuade him it was a cool thing, and a special honour, to have been given a real Aboriginal name, but he wasn’t convinced.

It may have been the right thing nevertheless to insist on customary lore in this exchange, even though it hurt my feelings. Giving offence, or taking it, is a necessary risk when cultures meet.


About many of my responses at the time of the painting workshop, I now feel unsure. We are used to taking our feelings as indicators of some kind of truth. This is an axiom, especially of feminist thinking, that I had previously inhabited comfortably.

But the workshop made me profoundly uneasy. Perhaps I had not expected to recognize all the feelings displayed by the artists, but I had expected to go on using the compass of my own.

In the event, I felt comfortable with the way Lynette and the others occasionally remarked on how they felt. Their affection, generously proffered, was easy to reciprocate.

But I couldn’t account for my anxiety at what seemed to be extraneous and peripheral stresses. The heat bothered me, the tasks of amusing children while hanging out in the studio as a ‘Chief Investigator’. I was uncomfortable ‘in my skin’, as they say.

Which is, on reflection, the most expressive I could have been. I felt uneasy in my white skin, for the many small ways in which the workshop, and our larger project, as an emblematic whitefella activity (knowledge acquisition) collided with ‘the Indigenous Other’. Politely, thoughtlessly, self-servingly, well-meaningly.

And I was squirming in shame for all the ordinary white middle class habits that have made my body a white body in a postcolonial country.


Read more! This essay originally appeared in ‘Mud map: Australian experimental women’s writing’
TEXT Special Issue 17, Moya Costello, Barbara Brooks, Anna Gibbs, Rosslyn Prosser (eds.) 3


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Joy Before The Object


Image from Albert Renger-Patzsch 'The World Is Beautiful'

Image from Albert Renger-Patzsch ‘The World Is Beautiful’

Art Gallery of NSW, Photography Gallery, 28 Sep 2013 – 2 Feb 2014

It is Albert Renger-Patzsch’s phrase that gives the title to this excellent exhibition of photography. He wrote; ‘There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object, and the photographer should be fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique.’

It’s telling that Albert Renger-Patzsch’spublisher made a marketing decision to change the title of his 1928 book from Things to The World Is Beautiful. The same thing might happen today, since marketing favours giving people what they expect rather than what the author might be trying to provoke.

The publisher’s change predictably upset him, because it takes the focus off the objects depicted in his photographs and toward the overbearing judgement of a human subject.

Precisely the wrong direction in which to go with the new art of photography, according to his view, one he shared with other better known contemporaries like Steigler and Man Ray. Photography’s virtue was objective – as a trained chemist, Renger-Patzsch had a scientist’s aesthetic. Photography was to be contrasted with the excessively subjective sensibility of the old art of painting.

The thought-provoking notion of ‘joy before the object’ informs the show in the AGNSW’s dedicated photography space. It is a remarkably compact but dense reflection on the viability of this contrast between objective and subjective. Across the history of photography, it serves to point up some essential formal elements particular to it, while focussing on the key relationship of subject to object.

These elements revolve around the directness of the relationship between the photograph and the viewer, its imagined ‘indexicality’ (Roland Barthes’ term). The photograph renders what is there; the object prompts the photograph in an important sense peculiar to the form.

Whereas in painting, the personality of objects is given by the artist in the fashioning of line and colour, in the case of the photograph, the object seems to speak for itself. It can reveal its own ineffable beauty and an aesthetic proper to it. Such was the fidelity about which Renger-Patzsch wrote, and which he rendered in photographs both of nature and of technology. He conjures the ‘magic of materiality’ in images such as that of a cactus, ‘Euphorbia grandicornis 1921-25’, rendered in black and white luminous detail.

In Robyn Stacey’s ‘Walnuts 2009’, a similar evocation of the secret life of the object lies nested in the whorls and ridges of walnuts in their shells. And yet this is by no means the only emphasis possible in the potentials between object and viewer. Fidelity can obscure the subjective element in the looking, given that what we see, both as the viewer and through the viewfinder, evokes a reaction in us. The ‘joy before the object’ is also given in the glimpses of what our own vision brings to the scene and our own traditions of viewing, not to mention our own desires.

So, for example, Stacey overlays a historical narrative on this image from her ‘Empire Line’ series; the walnuts are a reference to plantings in the colonial garden of Elizabeth Farm and carry with them the freight of a European life transplanted. Behind this, their vivid materiality speaks of the still life tradition, now transplanted over continents and art forms.


The more we regard it, the more complicated the relation between the object and the subject becomes. It can give the lie to that unmediated feint at the heart of the photographic. Fidelity is in the eye of the beholder. Our belief is intimately caught up in what we see.

Catherine Rogers’ inkjet prints, ‘cups’ and ‘plate on table edge 2007’, from the series ‘The Culture of the Table’, also address seventeenth century still life traditions. The differences between then and now are emphasised in the frailties of the teetering objects, and more alarmingly still, rendered in the negative.

Rogers’ techniques push the boundaries of the objective by revealing the affects bound up in certain ways of seeing things. Our comfort with domestic objects is here made strange in the photographic. And even that, of course, is a reference to the past, since Rogers’ images, as inkjet prints, refer also to the passing of a century of photographic techniques as well. The work becomes elegiac, and perhaps the idea of a culture of the table as a whole aims to hold the past in a poignant gaze.

It seems hard not to leap to the erotic in the idea of joy in the object, and yet, quite rightly, the show overlooks this possibility in favour of a cooler perspective that might belong to something more like an ‘object-relations’ theory.

The attachments to objects depicted in the images refer sometimes to the technologies and prostheses. For example, Fenton’s ‘bust of Homer’ 1854-58 was made as an albumen print, Sarah Ryan Blossom 2005 using digital lenticular technology and Ben Cauchi’s The Start of it All 2008 as an ambrotype. The images exhibit a strong attachment to photography’s conceptual possibilities; for example, Emma White opens imaginary pictorial spaces through rephotographing sculpted objects of an undefined nature in ‘Still life with objects’ 2011.

‘The end of photography’ is a video, a banal but obscure image stream by American Judy Fiskin from 2006. Itruns super 8mm images of 1950s suburban houses and lawns while a voice-over recites the darkroom contents that Fiskin has now abandoned since shifting to video work because of health issues.

‘…no more reels, no more tapes…’. ‘…no more water, no more darkness…’. There is something uncanny in Fiskin’s choice of the suburban as a form of life that itself will become anachronistic.

If this exhibition were a photograph, it would be notable for the depth of field, nuances in tone and revelations of partially-obscured elements. Such as the predominance of women among Australia’s talented contemporary photographers, and the delight taken in technological processes, both new and old, in the making of work.

The show brings out photography’s preoccupation with its history – paradoxical or perhaps predictable for such a modern art. Behind it we glimpse an agenda to make visible the many ways that photographers love their objects.

*This review first appeared in eyeline magazine #81












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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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