Essays (book reviews)
Ecstasy and Economics
Home and Away
Taking in the media coverage of the Los Angeles riots during April and May of 1992, I realised something slightly disconcerting. Everybody, these days, is a media intellectual – including those who work in the media.
A cartoon in the flip, American gossip magazine Spy showed a mean, black dude presenting a TV film review program, saying: “It’s a movie about teenage black gangs who get into fights when they go to movies about teenage black gangs”. Some version of this analysis was echoed almost ad nauseam on all current-affairs TV shows dealing with the Los Angeles riots, especially NBC Today. At the height of the events, Australia’s Lateline ran a segment called “Virtual Reality”, which juxtaposed clips from the popular movies Grand Canyon (1991) and Do the Right Thing (1989) with news footage of the looting and violent stand-offs – suggesting (none too subtly) that, in our crazy modern world, real life follows what’s on the screen. Or, as they said in the old days: life imitates art.
To some, this would be a virtual cliché of media studies, at least within the bubble of university curricula: Jean Baudrillard’s idea that simulacra (including media imagery) precede and determine reality. But now, through some strange and unknowable osmosis, here’s host Kerry O’Brien on Australia’s Lateline, kicking off a panel discussion (featuring American experts) on the riots with the question: “Would you like to comment on the power of images?”
That night on Lateline, the response given to O’Brien’s question by activist-intellectual Wahneema Lubiano was surprising and striking. “You can talk all you like about the power of images”, she said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that the videotaped image of Rodney King getting beaten was still less powerful, less persuasive to the jury than the story that the defense lawyer told – the story that King was a super-powerful black man fully in control of the whole violent situation”. The revelation offered by Lubiano, as she turned around this cliché about media and reality, reminds me of the kind of kick I often get from reading Australia’s great intellectual treasure, Meaghan Morris.
Morris’ Ecstasy and Economics comprises two essays. [Both essays were subsequently incorporated into her superb 1998 Indiana University Press essay collection, Too Soon Too Late: History in Popular Culture.] The first and longer one is offered as a “portrait of Paul Keating” [Prime Minister of Australia between 1991 and 1996], and gives the book its title. A good way into the essay is through a short piece that Morris wrote in 1987 for the British New Statesman, “Hawke and the Culture Vultures”. Reflecting upon arguments going on in Britain at the time about whether the left was stylish enough, or into pop culture enough, to win widespread support, Morris noted how all sides in the debate assumed a “separation of worlds between fashion, popular culture and consumer aesthetics on the one hand, and the conduct of national politics on the other”.
To an Australian trying to survive the Hawke government, Morris argued, things looked a little different. We were already living in a society where cultural style and political policy were joining and mutating in weird and frightening ways. “A debate about whether Dallas is or is not progressive really is a bit of a side-show”, Morris suggested. “The problem is what happens to politics, and to the political imagination, when soaps, yuppie consciousness and Labor government merge”.
A few years on from that, and Morris is tussling ambivalently with the image of Paul Keating. She begins from an admission of her fascination, her adulation even, of this man’s public performance – even as his political decisions offend or baffle her. But this is exactly the subject of her essay: the complete impossibility of separating questions of style and media consumption from the so-called “real politics” of government, law and economy. Morris finds her own ambivalence echoed in the strange behaviour of political journalists – who lambast Keating’s rise to power as the triumph of image, rhetoric and emotive appeal over political sense, but all the while lovingly monitor his every juicy gesture, snazzy suit and quotable quote.
Morris plunges into a knotty contemporary landscape where – as during the Los Angeles riots – the behaviour of both media and reality is inexorably affected by the circulation of popular theories about media and reality. Only in such a landscape could the Australian Left Review say that, since Keating popularised economics and made its sexy, “From the shop floor to the dance floor, everyone is squawking about micro-economic reform”! (That could almost be a rap lyric.)
Ultimately, Morris’ concern is still with “what happens to politics, and to the political imagination”. It can’t ever be a matter of simply wiping away the images and the myths in order to get to the real political core of things since, as she said in 1987, “Deciding whether the way things look is the way things are depends a lot on what you can see”.
It depends also on what you can feel, what you can dream. Ecstasy and Economics begins with a eulogy to the Australian poet John Forbes [1950-1998], and both essays in the book are structured on passages from his work. The Keating essay starts with the poem “Watching the Treasurer”, in which Forbes muses on the experience of watching Keating on TV.
I want to believe the beautiful lies
the past spreads out like a feast.
Television is full of them & inside
their beauty you can act ...
Morris’s essay on Keating is about these beautiful lies – where they come from, their history, their appeal – and about the kinds of personal and political action they might allow or disallow.
The full subtitle of this book is “American Essays for John Forbes”. Morris has often built a reflection on the situation of writing a piece into the piece itself – who commissioned it, why, its intended or actual audience. Since being invited to the USA as a figure on the international academic circuit, Morris has experienced first hand the painful inequities and lines of non-communication that shape our so-called global culture. This experience is foregrounded in the book’s second essay, “On the Beach”. International cultural studies, as it turns out, draws a map that leaves little space for Australia – for Australian experience, and the Australian theory and criticism of that experience.
Like Lubiano in her American context, Morris turns around all the easy analytical clichés about Australia, Australian identity and Australian culture that are racing like wildfire through both journalistic and academic sectors (in Australia, at least!) at the moment. Her aim is not merely to deconstruct images of nation such as the beach, or the common Aussie male – heaven forbid, since deconstructionists are fast becoming the most demonised species of supposed nihilists on the face of the earth. Morris aim is more, as she puts it, to create a temporary, tactical home from the play of texts and experiences that surround us – a home from which it is possible to move, act and imagine.
Meaghan Morris is a great writer – in fact, I can’t think of any Australian writer, whether of fiction or non-fiction, that I like better. By this I don’t only mean that her writing is racy, witty and stylish. I mean that, through the force and the movement of the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the ideas, she brings the reader to remarkable moments of insight (what Walter Benjamin once referred to as illuminations – and others would more conventionally describe as epiphanies). Her style is neither baroque nor monological; in fact, it is remarkable for the way it travels so enjoyably back and forth between the realms of analysis, anecdote, theory and personal experience – to the point where all these realms lose their old boundaries, and form a new home for the reader.
Only Morris would dare to rewrite this famous statement of Donald Horne’s from The Lucky Country (1964): “The image of Australia is of a man in an open-necked shirt solemnly enjoying an ice-cream. His kiddy is beside him”. Here’s her 1990s update:
He is the Ordinary Australian: retired now, worried about his pension and “the Asians taking over the country”; even his old trade union mates have just wasted rank and file money on a twenty-page liftout for Cleo, that yuppie female fashion magazine. In his prime, he aroused few philosophers to discourse (that would really be a bit much). But he was, and he still is, an object of intense desire for many a man of government.
© Adrian Martin 27 July 1992