Reviews + Analyses

Mar 28, 2008


Greenbeard is a new lit/arts mag edited by Mariana Sabino. Its flavour is international, with writers from Europe, India and Australia. Mariana is quite a fan of my writing and my blog and has included four of my pieces in the first issue – two book reviews, a film review and my short story Dead Women. Dead Women has only previously appeared on the blog as an extract but I invite you now, if you like, to read it all.
Greenbeard is definitely worth checking out. The book review section features a piece on sea monster stories, the poetry is excellent, and there is an amazing short story by Ray F. Roberts (see also his blog Indeterminacy) that I wish I had written myself! There is the editor’s engaging review of a Czechoslovakian film looking at the absurdist and existential themes. There are also wonderful illustrations and a beautiful ‘image pace’ by Leon Powell that looks at loneliness without feeling alone. Enjoy.

Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough – Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Allen & Unwin, 2005, 9781741146714 (Aus, US/Kindle)

Three years ago Clive Hamilton half-jokingly referred to the possibility of the five-blade razor. It comes as no surprise that his prediction has come true, and emphasises why Affluenza continues to be an extremely relevant book. Gillette’s razor with five blades and not one, but two, lubricating strips is designed for the closest shave possible. But really, it’s to turn consumer attention away from Schick’s four-bladed ‘Quattro’, which must of course be an inferior razor, not due to the amount of blades, but due to the ‘spacing of the blades’ as their campaigns advertise. One asks – how many blades do we really need?

‘While some choice is beneficial, too much can actually cause a decline in wellbeing. In an experiment in which subjects had to pick a chocolate from a selection of 30, the sense of regret and uncertainty about whether they had chosen the “most delicious” chocolate was greater than that experienced by a group who chose from a selection of only six different types of chocolate.’

The market-based society just does not really know when to stop. Surely Schick will one-up them in a few years with a six-blade, or do a complete marketing turnaround and offer a ‘Renaissance’ blade or some such thing that goes back to ‘classic’ shaving. All the market spin and bull is just designed to suck you into a whirl of mindless, meaninglessness consumption.

Affluenza explores Australian society today – a collection of individuals striving for material gratification. We work more hours than any other developed nation and thus spend less time with family. This is motivated by a pure drive to accumulate more ‘stuff’. Many Australians look to their retirement as the golden years when all the benefits of their success will be reaped. Hamilton calls this ‘deferred happiness syndrome.’ In the meantime any significance or wholesomeness in their life is being pulled like a carpet from under them. And many will not even make their retirement with increasing rates of stress-related diseases and rising levels of depression and suicide caused not only by overwork but the alienating effects and emptiness promoted by a shallow, wasteful cycle of life.

Statistics given by Hamilton and Denniss show that 62% of Australians don’t believe they can buy what they really need, and a high percentage of these come from the richest 20% of households. What this really shows is the permeation of the myth of the Aussie battler, and the disintegration of the ability to determine between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’.

‘Rising the threshold of desire in this way creates an endless cycle of self-deception: like the horizon, our desires always seem to stay ahead of where we are. This cycle of hope and disappointment lies at the heart of consumer capitalism’.

Like the razors, credit cards (in an age where debt is natural) have gone from Gold to Platininum to Black – and even recently, Titanium. The flashing of such a symbol is supposed to produce respect and envy at the owner’s status. Many products and brands are marketed to produce status, but what will become of a culture that looks up to shallow figures who have achieved nothing but wealth? The examples are too obvious to even warrant naming, but the SBS TV Show Decadence emphasised how society and the media in general downplay the achievements of scientists, thinkers, and writers and instead pedestalises pretty faces. Actresses and fashionistas are the new role models, and not for their skills and abilities but for their clothes, vacuous looks, and ability to be perpetually thinner than others. We are given an ideal self to emulate then marketed the goods that will help us achieve this. Even subversity and nihilism are marketed to youth, one example being the ‘Emily the Strange’ clothing range. Every market is researched and captured, everything is commodified.

But of course we are not all passive consumers, dumb and duped by advertising, but what can be emphasised is its inescapability. As the authors argue, it is certainly not money or even ‘affluence’ that is the problem, it is our attachment to it – this is the sickness of affluenza. The capitalist society has evolved into one that is centrally market-based, even through politics and the media (being 70% owned by a right-wing billionaire). A relevant point Hamilton brings up is the marketisation of illness. Society creates ills (eg. obesity) but the ‘cures’ are individualised (‘you’ have to do something about it) and companies profit from the creation of weight loss programs and drugs.

The biggest problem is of course the way that children are socialised within this framework. They are taught brand-love from their earliest years. Parents commodify their own children with label-clothing, often sexualising them too early. Adult ads are targeted at kids to increase the ‘nag factor’. Parents listen to their child’s ideas about what is considered ‘cool’. The toys available today are shocking, with even baby versions having heavy eye make up and pouting red lips. Some parents feel they have no choice in buying them because they don’t want their children to miss out. What kind of a skewed version of reality will young girls grow up with? That the only way to succeed in life, and most importantly, the only way to be happy is to be ‘sexy’?

‘We’re led to believe that money gives us choice, status, and increasingly, an identity. But there’s something hollow about all this. Whose meaning or identity is it? Am I really defined by where I live, what I wear, eat, or drive? Or am I just another willing victim of our sophisticated market?’ (from the SBS show Decadence)

Hamilton and Denniss explore how advertising plays to our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and how the culture contributes to the disposability of relationships. They also look at societally produced waste, obsolescence due to constantly updated technologies, and the damaging effects of youth’s early access to pornography.

While this may all sound incredibly depressing, Affluenza does look at options on how we can ‘downshift’ our lives without dropping out of society. It is not an attack but rather an acknowledgement that something fundamental has to change. It stresses the importance of getting back to involvement with community, giving something back but also to enable yourself to have those essential, rewarding human connections. It looks at people who have really done it and would never look back. It suggests maintaining an awareness of our own consumption patterns. We can regain the control over ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ and feel more fulfilled and enjoy a quality of life without the burden of maintaining a media- or marketing-constructed status-quo.

The SBS show Decadence believes that as a whole we have lost some intangible spirituality which is not necessarily connected to religion. It is the ability to stop and absorb the beauty of the land, the ability to feel transcendence through music, art or love. Not to fulfill a fast and shallow impulse. This basic liberal humanism is opposed to the neo-liberalism that has evolved in a West that forgets about ‘meaning’ unless constructed or manufactured and it will only be achieved through awareness, knowledge, education and even wisdom.

See more:

The Australia Institute website.

Related books:

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.

Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman.

Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel.

Late Capitalism by Ernest Mandel.

Reification, or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism by Timothy Bewes.

No Logo by Naomi Klein.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz.

Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess by Robert H. Frank.

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser.

The Selfish Capitalist: Origins of Affluenza by Oliver James.

Consuming Innocence by Karen Brooks. 

A dreary, overcast morning (typical London I’m told). I have been awake for hours – jetlagged, adrenaline-filled, foreign. Abbey Road is a long road. I find what I think is ‘that’ crossing (it is the only one I can find). It is early still and the street is packed with buses, taxis, rushing Londoners with grey-weather faces. I am too embarrassed to seem the tourist so I don’t ask for someone to take a photo of me pretending to be George (my favourite). Plus, it could be the wrong crossing. I take some crappy snaps anyway, inhibited by shiny red buses. I take an unplanned detour through affluent suburbia (high-heeled pram-pushers, Burberry umbrellas, pretty potted gardens) before finding the main road again.

London is big to me. There are swarms of people. The air is multilingual. Still, in my trilby hat, with my pink backpack and notebook in hand, I stand out a little. Sydney is large in expanse but there aren’t so many people squeezed into the spaces. It is coherent, not disjointed like this multiple-personality capital. The ‘tube’ is much easier than the Sydney trains though, if you don’t mind a bubble to breathe in. I even chat to people on my journey in to the centre (after accidentally slapping them with my bag) – a Brit, and some from the other down under, New Zealand.

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Naked Man With a Knife’. Although a picture just does not do it justice… (courtesy of Tate Website).

The Tate Modern is the epitome of my vision of alienated modernism. I seek the artists I love and discover new ones. I find myself unwilling to move from Jackson Pollock’s ‘Naked Man With a Knife’. Other highlights are:

Francis Bacon ‘Figure in a Landscape’ and ‘Second Version of Triptych 1944’

Mark Rothco ‘Material Gestures’

Jackson Pollock ‘No. 14’, and ‘Summertime No. 94’

Monet ‘Water Lilies’ The soft, magic green.

Picasso ‘Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle’

Max Beckmann ‘Prunier’

Roy Lichtenstein ‘Whaam’

Georges Braque ‘Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantlepiece’

Vanessa Bell ‘Abstract Painting’

Gino Severini ‘Suburban Train Arriving in Paris’

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson ‘Bursting Shell’
George Grosz ‘Suicide’

Pieter Roth ‘6 Picadillies’

Henri Matisse ‘Standing Nude’

Gustav Klimt ‘Portrait of Hermine Gallia’

Pierre Bonnard ‘The Bowl of Milk’

Jasper Johns ‘0 through 9’

Andy Warhol ‘Margaret Hayward’

The gallery contains pieces from movements such as realism, surrealism, expressionism, minimalism, cubism, futurism, vorticism, Dadaism, abstract-expressionism, and Pop Art. Much of the stylistic themes are tied into literary, philosophical and social ideas from a changing world post World War One and Two. Some of these themes include existentialism, modernity and industrialisation, modernism and romanticism, Nietsche’s distrust of Western rationalism, Marxist revolution, and Freud’s theories (a ‘revolution of the mind’). Enthralling. Search for artworks in the Tate Collection online.

I plan to visit Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in a few days but happen across it on my way to the tube. The tour begins in two minutes –

‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’ – Shakespeare.

I enjoy the refined accent of the tour guide as he explains the process and reasons behind rebuilding the infamous Elizabethan theatre exactly as it was. A theatre that nourished the best plays in the English language, and we could say, the English language itself. I get shivers imagining the words spoken upon the gilded wooden stage. The stories that are still deemed timeless and essential, even in montage-postmodernist fashion where recontextualised characters and moments maximise the potency of theme. I touch the stage as a ‘groundling’ and then I go into the rafters to experience the views of the privileged. I regret their program does not extend to the Winter months.

I get the tube from London bridge, on the way feasting my eyes on cobbled streets of old London. I sense the ghosts in the mossy stone walls. Plague-riddled lunatics, scungy crims, ratty-tatty tykes. Even the new signs and shopfronts don’t detract from the dankness, the closeness, the history of the walk.

At Holborn I meet my tour guide for a look at Blomsbury and the most literary streets in London. I am walking in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps. I sense the strong connection to her emotional and intellectual enquiries. I visit the house where the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ met and an amateur ‘hat photographer’ takes a photo of me by the red door (that story is just too long).

I see where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married and where they spent their wedding night. I want to touch the door of the depleted-seeming house. Ted Hughes has a poem in his Birthday Letters called 18 Rugby Street about that very address.

I meet a bust of Bertrand Russell, which reminds me to read more – Russell said

‘It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.’

I see where Oscar Wilde spent his last day, where TS Eliot worked and was obsessed with punctuation, and the University of London, nicknamed the ‘godless university’, also the headquarters of the ‘Ministry of information’ in WW2, the basis for George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ in 1984.

Bust of Bertrand Russell.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'” – from 1984.

The tour ends at the British Museum, whose Reading Room nourished the ideas and research of countless literary greats and revolutionaries. The Museum’s Great Court is also my meeting place with PD Smith, author of Doomsday Men. We find a compact London pub and embark on a lively conversation about writing, science, travel, cities, people, literary inadequacy, and publishing. I come away thoroughly refreshed and stimulated by the conversation and very glad to have met him. I promise him a Michel Foucault article I have lying around to add to his research for his next book, an analysis and exploration of cities. After reading Doomsday Men, I know it will be both accessible and intelligent. I encourage PD before I go to have a go at fiction sometime when the inspiration strikes as even in non-fiction he is adept at describing moments and developing character.

I make my way to Covent Garden (only getting slightly lost) to the ‘Fire and Stone’ to meet Jacob Sam-La Rose, the poet, art event organizer, and teacher (among other things) and some of his friends for a late meal. One of my favourite poems of his is called Algebra:

Loaded pizzas and continual talk-over-each-other conversation runs rampant. We speak of politics (why Thatcher is never really related to by gender, whether it’s a good or bad thing), race, religion, literature, life, work and all the other essentials. Jacob and friends Michelle, Annette, Malika and Naomi sweetly shout their Aussie guest dinner (thanks again guys, you must visit me down under) then drive me to my hostel. We do eventually get there after circling it eight times due to my own terrible directions. I jump online to make sure I have somewhere to say in Scotland then I crash out – fulfilled, grateful, and exhausted. Onward to castles, lochs, museums, and canine ghosts on Candlemaker Row…

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway, Phoenix, 1997, 9780753804704 (Aus, US

The Reader was experienced traveling by train through Europe, and recalled when faced with the ‘Topography of Terror’ monument in Berlin (the site of the SS headquarters), and Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam. It is a coming of age story simply told. Michael becomes involved with an older woman, the tram conductor Hanna. He is later asked to attend the trial of female guards from Cracow, the concentration camp, during his law studies. Michael is ‘the reader’ as he reads aloud to Hanna throughout their relationship, and later on, when he is still struggling with the possibility of her guilt. The novel is not particularly striking, or powerful. It doesn’t sensationalise love, sexuality, war, or the crimes of the Nazis. But its quiet nature does give it a certain resonance, where questions are posed during a life inexplicably tied in with larger events, issues, and the responsibilities of being human. Are we driven innately by desires, by evolution, in war and in the bedroom? Or are we controlled by the expectations of society in our context?

The novel is not ultimately fulfilling, but then, can one ever be fulfilled when faced with the subject of war, particularly the Holocaust? Schlink comes from a generation of Germans who were witness to their parents’ part in a collective and national guilt. These themes are reflected in the awkwardness of Michael’s latent feelings for Hanna. The book is a valuable one for the collection of anyone interested in this part of history. The Reader, however, doesn’t have the power of The Diary of Anne Frank where one girl’s experience gives a voice to the murdered masses.

One comfort for this literary-minded traveler was school groups encountered on those visits to both the ‘Topography of Terror’ and Anne Frank’s House. If anyone fears that history and education are being snowed under by materialism and technology, you had only to hear the intelligent lines of questioning from these children. One young boy took out his earphones to tell the teacher he just couldn’t believe the extent that human beings would go to in order to mass murder others. His eyes were wide, and it seemed he was experiencing a little jolt of awakening. It’s only the persistence of history that can help us avoid the crimes of the past, and to teach the horrors of war. We may only make room for new mistakes but the possibility of correction, progress, and improvement is there. The Reader is a satisfactory novel but works better as an emotional and quiet history, accessibly presented.