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Featured in this issue The Common Flesh

Also, new poetry

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In previous issues:

Interview with Alison Croggon

Specula

Specula: Mirrors from the Middle Ages

Poetry

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To order The Common Flesh from Arc Publications

Attempts at Being from Salt

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Alison is editor of Masthead

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Webpage

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Contributor Notes

The Imaginative Life and the Social Responsibility of Writers

Writers' Symposium, International Federation for the Teaching of English, 2003 July 6, Melbourne Concert Hall


By Alison Croggon Alison Croggon

On the question of politics and art, I would like to take full advantage of being a poet and begin by expressing my negative capability: that quality John Keats defined as the ability to remain “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. On the one hand, I believe that art is inescapably political. And on the other, I believe that art and politics have nothing to do with each other.

Both these statements seem to me to be true. Contradiction is, of course, a shorthand way of expressing a complex reality, and tonight I would like to tease out a little of what I mean. My argument will be inevitably schematic: it's impossible to do more than scrape the surface of the vexed and fascinating relationship between writing and society. However, I'll begin by stating a position: I believe that all works of art, no matter how hermetic or esoteric they might appear to be, are embedded in and are responses to the cultures and societies in which they are made. Culture – by which I mean not only works of art but the structures of critical thought, both institutional and individual, which respond to and evaluate them – is never above society or human life or the historical moment in which it occurs.

The humanistic western tradition of art, a tradition which has not yet died despite many attempts on its life, maintains the opposite. Perhaps the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold sums up this tradition best: in 1860, he influentially defined culture as being “the best knowledge and thought of [its] time”. To Arnold, culture was a force which palliated the brutalising realities of modern urban existence and which was, in every sense of the word, “above” it. But, as Edward Said has demonstrated in his remarkable and necessary studies, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, this idea of culture is by no means separable from the worlds of mercantile or imperial power within which it existed. By reinforcing European culture and art as central and the culture of the rest of the world as “inferior”, and more importantly, by appropriating to itself the right to know and represent the Other (by which I mean all marginalised peoples: women, “inferior” races and cultures, the poor, the insane), culture was as important an instrument of wordly power as the armies of the British Empire.

In his conclusion to Culture and Anarchy, Arnold identified culture, “the best knowledge and thought”, with the State. “Culture,” he said, “is the most resolute enemy of anarchy, because of the great hopes and designs for the State which culture teaches us to nourish”. He opposed strikes or protests, no matter how justifiable, on these grounds: the State, as the embodiment of “the best”, was, as he said, “sacred”. And he wholeheartedly approved of the brutal repression of rebellions against the British Empire by the native populations of Ireland and India. By his lights, they were not only irrational but blasphemous.

It's sad to see that in the 21st century things are not much different. Only the terms have changed: the prevalent culture is now one of mass media, a globalised industry of representation which is the front of another imperial power. But where once culture was supposed to lift us above worldly concerns, now it is supposed to “entertain” us, to anaesthetise us against the multiple anxieties of contemporary life: we are offered a kind of infantile sublime. Serious cultural critique is no longer the concern of bourgeois daily newspapers, and has retreated in disarray to the halls of the academy, where radical thinking has dissolved itself in a haze of self-reflection and has grown progressively more impotent. Although I should say that there are, of course, noble exceptions, many of whom are working from within the very humanistic traditions they critique.

In the past decade, the demand that writing be “above” politics, never far away, has strongly reasserted itself. This is enough to prompt a deep suspicion: writing which most strongly professes itself to be apolitical or above worldly concerns is most usually, in its identification with the status quo, deeply ideological. It is an ideology which often remains invisible, because it does not challenge the prevailing attitudes of its times. This goes some way to explaining why the perjorative accusation of being “political” is very often levelled at work which contests the status quo, rather than at the equally “political” work which supports it.

To examine how a work might support or challenge a status quo, I wish to turn to the question of representation. One of the interesting phemomena of our times is public language, which so often inoculates itself against ideas of justice and democracy and freedom by adopting their language. Thus we make a war which is called peace, create an occupation which is called a liberation, make “core” and “non-core” promises, and so on. This goes deeper than the slang word “spin” implies: “spin” suggests a superficial action, the extra pressure on a moving ball which slightly turns it. In reality this is a profound distortion of language, and thus of public realities. Writing is not exempt from this, and there is much writing which claims a radicality which it does not earn by simply adopting the vocabularies of freedom and justice, without addressing the deeper implications of the structures of language and thought which it employs. This kind of approach ultimately serves the status quo as effectively as any right wing polemicist.

Here I should make clear that I am not entering the business of cultural blame. Narrowly political methods of reading and analysis are anathema to me. Writing that is worth the name is always complex, and I don't subscribe to the idea that, for example, reading Shakespeare is a waste of time because he was a scion of Elizabethan imperialism. To acknowledge how writing is embedded in its time and place and society is to deepen our understanding of its meanings and possibilities. It is to ask that we read and write with awareness and attentiveness to all dimensions of our existence.

By its most basic definition, art is a process of representation. To represent anything is, in the broadest sense, an inescapably political action, and an action which has effect. This is why culture is such a hotly contested arena, and why anyone who concerns him or herself with the business of representation has to be aware of what a representation is and what it means to make it. I have talked of the political implications of work which supports the State or the prevailing culture, but of course the writing which has always been most interesting is that which dissents, the writing which resists, by a multiplicity of means, the forces of received thought and convention.

This is why, rather than posing the question of the relationship between the writer and society in terms of social or political responsibility, I would rather think of a morality of representation.

Representation means not only what is represented, but how it is represented. In a work of art, style and content are not separable qualities: a poem is not a vessel into which is poured a meaning, which can then be poured into another vessel for analysis by a reader or critic. A poem's aesthetic, formal properties – its rhythms, its sonic pleasures, its shape on a page, its metaphors – are as much part of its meaning as anything that can be paraphrased into “plain” prose. The aesthetic properties of a work are those to which a reader responds at a visceral, emotional level. They work directly through the senses, anticipating intellectual apprehension, which always comes later, and are essential in communicating the fullness of any work's meaning. They are also qualities which cannot be transposed from the work itself: no truly literary writing can be paraphrased. Consequently, these qualities are very often forgotten in discussing any work of art. But it is precisely these aesthetic qualities that define a work of art as art: and it is here that a moral consciousness, a morality, begins.

What do I mean, then, by morality? The simplest dictionary definition is that morality is the attempt to make distinctions between right and wrong. I must make a very clear distinction here between morality and the business of moralising, a totally different and uninteresting activity which bases itself securely in received opinion. To moralise is to know in advance what is right and what is wrong. The rightwing Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, who is currently conducting a disgracefully dishonest crusade against the arts, is a moraliser. On the other hand, a moral consciousness is the product of the often painful and always ongoing evolution of an individual conscience. It is a process which situates itself first of all in uncertainty, and which accepts that the world is complex and full of contradictions. It is a desire, above all, to recognise and to understand human reality.

Human reality is anarchic and unpredictable. It is, not uncoincidentally, the reality most often suppressed by governments who want to do something immoral. The most blatant local example of this was during the last election, when our Federal Government forbade the Navy to take “humanising” photographs of asylum seekers. They were ordered to take the pictures at a distance, so individual faces could not be recognised and spark public empathy, thus permitting the representation of asylum seekers as hostile and dangerous aliens to proceed without discomfort. This is a particularly crude example, but sadly not an isolated one; such control of representation is one of the premier concerns of any structure which seeks to gain and maintain power.

Literature has always existed in a context of other representations, both literary and unliterary, but for the contemporary writer the surrounding material is overwhelming. It's not only that we have an access to multiple cultural traditions, both literary and oral, which is historically unprecedented. We also exist in a world saturated by images and texts from the mass media, which exert a power and hegemony which is also unprecedented: every day we encounter newspaper reports, television, film, the internet,the ubiquity of advertising. This means we live, as writers and therefore as custodians and maker of language, in a uniquely rich and uniquely destructive time.

The sheer weight of these modes of representation forces on us the question of where we situate ourselves in relation to them, and to the industries and interests which promote them; what we might call the cultural machine. There is no easy answer to this question - it may be, in fact, that there is no answer - but that does not mean that the question is any less crucial. Do we wish to affirm the values and ideologies of the prevailing culture, or do we wish to examine what role these representations play in the formation of reality? Do we really wish to examine honestly our collusions with power, even with power that we detest? After all, even writing in the English language is an act with implications: the international prevalence of English is inseparable from its role in suppressing other cultures, and in the deaths of literally hundreds of languages.

And it is impossible, in a society as slickly commodified as ours is, to escape the commodification of the word: no matter how radical a work might be, if it persists, it will be appropriated. This appropriation is in fact the condition of its survival from one generation to the next. The relationship between society and the writer is very often a poisonous one: the cultural machine responds to writing which challenges its authority by creating antibodies to destroy the work. The work it cannot destroy it appropriates and commodifies, and therefore neutralises: so the poetry of Ibsen's plays, for example, is transformed into a quaintly old fashioned version of television naturalism, and loses its primary force and political power. The apotheosis of this absorptive ability was surely the sight of William Burroughs making advertisements for Nike.

As writers, we all face this dilemma: we are part of our society, and not above it. It is essential to our existence, as human beings and as writers. To write outside society is not only an oxymoron, it's an impossibility. But if our work can only exist within it as a commodified object – and there is no other way for it to exist, if we wish it to enter the public domain – the work is doomed. Construed at its most black, there is no way out of this dilemma. Either the writer becomes part of the machine, a structure which she may professedly despise, or she is not a writer. The most she can hope to do is to temporarily evade its machinations by a series of continually more acrobatic strategies, by maintaining an impossible vigilance, or by living in a cave in the middle of the Simpson desert.

But I think there nevertheless remains an inextinguishable, if perhaps a tiny, hope. The hope lives in the fact that writing is a human activity, and is therefore subject to the anarchies and contradictions of human existence. It is the hope that the aesthetic experience of a work of writing, the experience of beauty that writing can offer, may ignite its anarchy, its human and humane reality, within another's mind.

By “beauty”, I do not mean that anodyne quality which is often given the name of beauty – those conventional and acceptable idealisations which serve to soothe our anxieties and which ultimately blind us to reality. I mean the shattering, true experience: the experience of beauty as an awakening to our world, its human and unhuman realities, its agonies, its contradictions, its terrifying freedom, and its joy. To make beauty, to wrestle back the realities of human experience from the many interested powers which seek to conceal and distort it, seems to me a uniquely moral act. In these over-mediated and warlike times, it even seems to me to be a necessary act.

“We still try to cultivate the hope,” says the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, “that the human genus is capable of acting rightly, which presupposes that it is capable of recognising its own structure, and that of reality. We still believe in a human potential. Beauty is what we call that feeling of happiness which in art, as a human message, is released by the communication of some sort of belief. And yet such belief, even in its most illusion-free variants – such as in Beckett's art – is not contained in a philosophical or intellectually encoded message, but in the experience, communicated by sensory perception, of people who succeed in expressing themselves … knowing full well that the artist has not something to say, but something to create.”

Lachenmann's comments remind me of something my son said to me when he was seven years old. The making of beautiful things was, he said, a “moral duty”.

But that moral duty is more, much more, than a matter of the self flowering into a painful and joyous reality. To recognise oneself is, ultimately, to recognise reality. Writing which brings me this experience of beauty is writing that expresses a particular writer's truth, one truth out of the many truths which infuse our world with their meanings. It makes me begin to understand my relationships to this world, my alienations, my loneliness, my community; it shows me another way of seeing and being. This recognition, if it is a real recognition, if it is not denied or evaded, prompts the evolution of a morality: for a moral consciousness begins, as the sociologist Zygmunt Baumann has said, with the recognition of the other. Most of all, such writing gives courage, and from that courage opens the possibility of action.

The miasma of contemporary mass culture makes us, as a populace, frightened and disempowered. This is a deliberate policy, as in this way we become manipulable: we are made into docile consumers and docile voters. But writing which gives us its truth gives back to us what others have taken away. It gives us a glimpse through the miasma. It liberates us, even if shows us the bleakest of realities, because it giving us is its own truth, and not the distorted truths of power.

I'll finish with a quote from the American poet and human rights activist Muriel Rukeyser, who is a writer who work has often given me courage. What she says here of poetry applies equally to all forms of writing, and for me it articulates the small but potent hope that writing may legitimately claim:
Much …has been taken away from us; but now we need to look for the relating forces. The forces, that is, that love to make and perceive relationships and cause them to grow; they may be most complex.

As poetry is complex.

For poetry, in the sense in which I am using the word, is very like the love of which Diotima told Socrates. She, speaking of love, told how it was of its nature neither good nor beautiful, for its desire was the beautiful, its desire was the good.

I speak, then, of a poetry which tends where form tends, where meanings tend.

This will be a poetry which is concerned with the crises of our spirit, with the music and images of these meanings. It will also be a poetry of meeting places, where the false barriers go down. For they are false.

Alison Croggon, July 5, 2003

Born in 1962, Alison Croggon is one of a new generation of Australian poets which emerged in the 1990s. She writes in many genres, including criticism, theatre and prose. Her poetry has won the 1991 Anne Elder and Dame Mary Gilmore Prizes and also been shortlisted for several literary awards. Her most recent poetry books are Attempts at Being (Salt Publishing) and The Common Flesh (Arc Publications). Her fantasy novel for young adults, The Gift, the first installment of an epic series, was nominated in two categories in the Aurealis Awards for Excellence in Australian Speculative Fiction in December 2002 and named one of the Notable Books of 2003 by the Children's Book Council of Australia. The Gift will be published in the UK by Walker Books in May 2004 and in the US by Candlewick Books in May 2005. Part 2, The Riddle, has just been completed and will be released by Penguin Books Australia in September 2004, and the following years in the US and the UK. She is the founding editor of Masthead literary arts ezine (www.masthead.net.au)