Monday, June 16, 2003

So, I actually finished an essay this morning (er, yesterday morning). With all reference to Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus - in which Sisyphus' eternal punishment by some Greek god or other is that he must push a boulder up a hill, which always rolls back down to the bottom again, requiring him to push it back up again, repeatedly for all eternity - I commented to a friend in an email earlier that I felt, in finishing this essay, as I imagine Sisyphus would if he were, one day, to push the boulder to the top of the hill, and find that it stayed. I'm not really sure why it took me so to write the essay - it occurs to me that two months is a rather long time. That's quite an amount of procrastination. As a result, my 3D Pinball playing has never been so controlled. Not that that's going to do much good in the academic stakes. Here's hoping that I don't fail the subject.

But as I sit in the bowels of the morning, I am reading another article by Slavoj Zizek, to be found here, on the recent war in Iraq. I have also read an article on American imperialism by Arundhati Roy, published in a magazine called In These Times. They got me thinking - or rather, they aroused my recent thoughts - on, silly and grandiose as the words sound, society and the political. Indulge me.

I think I will always look back with fondness, to the time in which I read No Logo. I read it in Year Twelve, in 2001, and I remember it being a 'political awakening', of sorts. The cultural landscape at the time was full of events which seemed to bear witness to the narrative it described - there was S11 (the anti-globalisation protest, not the other one), there were grassroots newspapers, adbusting, independent and third party candidates looked set to draw more voters away from Labor and the Liberals than ever before, reports of sweatshops, an American presidential campaign saturated in money and political spin. Listening to the Sunday Speakers' Forum outside of the State Library, I really did believe that there was a 'fire' building underground, that discontent was spreading, that the global system was creaking under the weight of it all. Retrospectivally, it probably didn't help that I was studying the American and French revolutions at school, or that I had been poking about with Marx in the previous Summer holidays. Nonetheless, I felt that there was meaning; I could perceive what 'my role' in society should be. Politics was a practical, material thing: it was states and power and oppression and liberation. The enemy of good was, simply, ignorance. If we worked to spread the word about how things really were, if we could invigorate the people, reactivate their desire to become involved, make them truly citizens once again, then - then what? - the world would change, we could eradicate poverty, eradicate disadvantage...

And so on. Naive as I was, as an inchoate socialist, there was a great force of certainty behind all of this. I remember so clearly, sitting on a tram with Naomi in my lap (Klein, that is, the "funky new heiress to Noam Chomsky", as I believe were the words of No Logo's back cover), reading about how complicit the academy had been about all of this. As Klein described it, they couldn't raise awareness about the increasingly far-reaching tentacles of globalisation, as they were so caught up in the whole post-modernism shebang that they weren't even sure if reality existed, let alone if they had a role in it. This, I thought, closed the debate on what I would do with my future. I would not spend my life burrowing about in some obscure, elitist academic hole. I would go to university to learn about the world, learn how it worked and how it had got this way, and then set about 'changing it for the good'. Study would refine and hone my political views. The world had better watch out.

What a distance to have come in two years. The university gauntlet has had some consequences that I had not really expected, or given much forethought to. I used to get misty-eyed watching footage of protests on the news. "Yes!" I thought, "This is what democracy is about - the people." Now, watching such things, whatever liberal-democratic leanings I ever had are confronted with thoughts that begin to sound almost too fashionable for their own good. Thoughts which remind me that the news broadcast I'm watching isn't just reflecting reality, it's constructing it. That my concern for the plight of the Third World is riddled with imperialist echoes. Blah blah blah. That "the people", as it turns up in democratic accounts of sovereignty, is not only fictive, but is also bound up with a conception of the 'universal human individual' that looks eerily like a white, middle-class, able-bodied man. I must say, it makes for slightly rougher sailing than the "Fuck capitalism! Educate the people!" approach of yesteryear. After all - what sort of curriculum would this 'educating the people' involve, once we'd fucked capitalism?

Don't worry, though - I'm not in any danger of becoming a facile nihilist, a knee-jerk, uncritical post-modernist (note: that's just one variety of post-modernism - a bastard offshoot, really, as the real stuff is really quite good to read), as a foil for my own apathy. I'm just a bit confused, is all. Language and culture, the very way in which we conceive of the world, is political. Fine, I can accept this. There is obviously more critical thought going on in the work of Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault or Judith Butler than will ever, ever be found in such allegedly radical publications as The Green Left Review, or Indymedia. The whole thing's more complicated than it looks - this is okay, it doesn't leave me too lost at sea.

However.

I am still left with the problem of what I should do. Even as I come to study truly groundbreaking theories of how power is constructed, I get the feeling that what the academy says is, on the whole, just not heard. As a case in point, one might ask why it is that the only sort of feminism that appears on the opinion pages of The Age is the crap feminism, rather than the good stuff. You know how it goes - "I'm being oppressed by patriarchy because I'm a woman, but it's kind of okay because now I can wear bumster jeans and show that I'm in control of my sexuality, and in fact I'm starting to feel sorry for men these days, because they have so many new demands made on them by feminism, in fact, I renounce feminism altogether, as men and women should be equal" (admittedly, this is a sort of mega-mix of crap feminism). True as some of these claims may be (some ... and only a bit), it's not really earth-shattering stuff. Unfortunately, the earth-shattering stuff is written using words like "phallogocentrism", "essentialism", "constructivism", "embodiment", etcetera, which just wouldn't cut it in a newspaper. Academic language is just so inaccessible. And even if it isn't, discussion of the power effected in culture and language would quickly be written off as the sophism of the intelligentsia, the word games of the chattering classes, the pontification of the academic elites, locked up in their ivory towers, away from the real world (as if the architectural obscenity that is Monash's Menzies building could ever be called an 'ivory tower' ... well, perhaps if you squint).

Who do I want to be (ugh, vomituous sentence)? A George Bush/Tony Blair/John Howard/Kofi Annan/Condoleezza Rice, the sort of person who makes it big in the political arena? A Jacques Derrida/Michel Foucault/Judith Butler, a minor academic celebrity on the lecture circuit? A Thom Yorke? A Zadie Smith? (Man, this is getting heavy for this time of the morning.) I have a year and a half left of being an undergraduate... it looks like decisions may have to be made rather too soon for my liking.

With all this off my chest, I might start writing the last essay which stands between me and freedom. This post, I realise, may have become embarrassingly gauche, clumsily introspective. I hope not, though I can't really tell. Drop us a line if you have any comments - cjrya1 a t student dot monash.edu dot au. Otherwise, I think I need to lie down. Until next time.

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