The perception of trust

Election day in Australia, 2013.  Bleak atmosphere at the prospect of Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister.  I try not to slip into depicting him as a lizard man, but truly, when someone’s behaviour and speech and er, what I will call policies are sub-human, it’s hard not to.

It’s also an incredible day where I live, ocean views, bright white sunshine, beloved doggies.

The real, or something.

Whatever happens, I am lucky.  I am grateful to live where I live, to be in Australia.  And I can also be angry about the things that are fucked up, unequal, polluting, idiotic.  The short sighted destruction.

I haven’t watched TV for a long time, except for a brief period of two years, which finished about a year ago.  I have also not been reading print media.  I access SBS World News, Sydney Morning Herald, ABC news, The Guardian and the Huffington Post on apps and websites, and the various responses to political news on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  And, oh boy.

Still the revulsion.  Still the nausea.

By Michael Leunig

So my thesis (stick with me here) works with the concept of self-branding.  The branding of artists who also perform and/or say things that are politically critical.

As avid readers may know, I received some strong critique of my thesis by examiners.  Rolling with it, and getting into doing the revisions now, I know that there is further I can go with my theorising, even as I would like to be done with it.

Perhaps, perhaps one of the reasons it has been hard to grasp what I am saying is …


Perception of an artist.  Perception of a politician.

The good ole massaging of spin and brand and polls.  The PR of the wavefront.  The logo-ifying being more important than the real.  (What is the real, the old philosophy student part of me asks …)

So, there is the branding.  We can point at it.  We can see the brand of The Greens, their logo, their front, their profile pictures, their signs on telegraph poles on the road.  On websites, Facebook, news grabs of Christine Milne’s face.  There are artefacts, some tangible, like banners volunteers string over the highway overpass, and some virtual, as I change my avatar on Facebook to ‘This Saturday I’m Voting Greens’.  

(All of these examples for all of the other parties, too, but I literally am so revolted I don’t want to study them. Which is possibly part of the problem).

Then there is the knowledge that this branding is a part of the fight to secure votes for their candidates who say they will enact certain policies. (Ok, basic, but this is me trying to break it down through media fog and despair).

So here comes trust.

Trust that they will (to whatever extent) enact those policies, that my vote will put in the Parliament someone who will at least fight for and speak for, for example, no coal seam gas mining, climate change action, equal marriage recognition.  

Trust is slippery, or at least nebulous.  A therapist and anyone who has done some psychological reflecting can probably say: look, ultimately, we don’t know what’s going on inside anyone else.  We don’t know what they will do, what they think.  (Hey, the self can be enough of a mystery).  So trusting that someone will act a certain way is …

What is it?  Gut?

Gut and judging their past behaviour against their speech and their branding.

So.  The branding weighed up with the ‘real’.  Or what, for example, Tony Abbott has done as a member of Parliament and Opposition Leader versus what he is now saying in his attack ads.

I read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and my partner is currently reading Naomi Klein’s No Logo.  So lots of chats about this.  

In Pattern Recognition, the super-instinctual, gut reaction to branding is the main character’s great strength and vulnerability.  In No Logo Klein writes of how corporations and conservatives co-opted the idea of fighting for representation from activist groups, how the public sphere becomes the battleground for perception.

In some ways you could say all of this has already been so (for example, if giving feedback to a paper and saying ‘but what about when that held true for 1950s politicians, or for reggae artists, or whatever).

But surely the saturated war of perception is new.  Even if it isn’t, let’s still look at it.

But how to get outside of it to look at it?

Or look at it from where we are, inside of it, because who gets outside of it?

So, I guess that has been my approach with the thesis, look at some branded artefacts from artists, and online branding and some performances and tracks.  I can never ‘capture’ it all.  

Maybe there’s a need to let go of the idea of being able to ‘be outside’ and make an authoritative interpretation.  Look at the things themselves, as an inspired colleague says.  


Ok, but then if we (still with me?) go back to politicians: it matters.  It matters if the things themselves, if their branding and their speeches and their how to vote cards, it matters if they correspond to new mining approvals.  It matters if they will lower the low income tax threshold again.

Who to and why?  Well, ok … maybe that gets us off the topic of branding.  It matters to me because those things matter to me (and, ooh, maybe 10% of Australian voters, I guess).  Because I have a core sense of ethics, that I then use to make judgements about fracking and equal rights for LGBTI people and the lives of refugees. 

Which is not to say that I am a perfect ethical person (ooh, there I go with the introspecting:))

But there is something that I am measuring the branding against.

Maybe this is what I haven’t been able to articulate in the thesis.  Because the something isn’t just some reasoned, conscious barometer.

I guess I can be aware of the ways that I may measure branding against my gut/ethics/own research.  And then I could say that this will be relative, that I am not pretending that my measurement is the objective, ‘outside of it all’ view.

But no no, there’s also this part that I haven’t gotten too yet (it’s fine if you need a break).  The tone war of Leunig’s cartoon, the sense of overwhelming branding fog and counter commentators and bullshit soundbytes leading up to election day.  The endless Borges library of MC brands that intertextually reference each other. The swamp, miasma.  Even if it is a bright white shiney day listening to the roadworks and the birds and gazing at the ocean in the real, I know that the fog is there.  Even as I haven’t delved much into Facebook and media yet today – at least start the day with some yoga and feeling good – I know this shit is swirling around.

So there’s this sense of never getting to the real about the politicans.  Even if I vote in a certain way because of my gut and because of seeing research coming out of real coal seam gas wells and the passionate sense of equal rights for humans, I can’t ever be free of the brand.

In relation to them, anyway.

Although, I can sit here and think that Christine Milne is a real person who has whatever ethics and thoughts and principles she has, she is not just a part of the wavefront of green triangles and slogans.


Hoo.  Ok.  I have probably gone around in circles.  Maybe someone else can tell me if I have or not:)

My partner and I are kicking off a business that will come from, for me anyway, this core of ethics, this gut response to living.  We are researching the ethics and sustainability of various products and their manufacturing.  Then we will sell those products.  And I do feel good about what we will do and why.  And as we enter into branding our biz, I guess it’s just … a feeling sense of staying close to, acting ‘from’, the ethics as the driver.

The wavefront being tethered to the core.

‘Moral witnessing’ of a higher status

Giroux’s article about ‘Lil Wayne’s Lyrical Fascism’, here, makes good points.  The erosion of civil rights values, the pornification of everything to make the bottom line plumper, the casual cruelty of spectacle.  ‘Course. These things I agree with.  

I also get pretty allergic to a certain claiming of status about the ‘moral witnessing’ that civil rights era activists, and writers who remember them, engage in.  Yes.  Honouring, remember, upholding.  Yes.  But ‘higher value’ can wedge in that generational gap to become preaching.  Try living in the youth cultures that routinely trade in misogyny.  Try being a female artist.  

Yes, people of any age can (and some do) question consumerism as the basis of all things.  Yes, people of any age, gender, race, sexuality, and ability can get themselves educated about the multiple struggles that have gone before.  That continue.  

There’s also a need to look at the ways that precarity of work and disposability of people affect the ways that people think about themselves.  And justice.  And history.

Now.  I don’t want to give excuses (and I won’t, for misogynistic, racist crap).  It’s pretty likely that if I can accuse others of sounding inflated and preaching, they can accuse me of sounding resentful.  

But the system that applauds Lil Wayne didn’t come out of the abyss*.  And, of course, systems are made and sustained and changed by people.  Like those marchers, those preachers.  And MCs and those who stop applauding.

By female artists rapping back.  By male producers steering clear of the schtick.


*Or did it.

The boring bleurgh of academia

It’s not what you think.  It’s the unhinged ones on the loose.  The hypercritical egotistical snake-headed spitters. The manically incisive flickers.  Dismissers.  Sweeping away work and thought and care with damning remarks.

I have written about it before.  I know academia is critical.  There is a lot about this that is good.  And, the shadow-monster in the critical house is that it feeds some individuals who are pretty inhuman.  In the sense of forgetting that the work is done by humans.

I am aware that I may be particularly sensitive.  That I take responsibility for my own ego and its vulnerability.  I am also resilient, in the critical swamp, and in llife.

When other factors such as casualisation, student debt, and other challenges of having a body, hormones, wanting family, wanting to no longer be in the low income reality connect with putting years of effort into this study and research gig: it’s tough.  Dispiriting.

That’s the word, really.  Australia’s dominant reality is secular, particularly in academia.  Fair enough.  But the basic act of being a good person while still giving critique is where it’s at for me.  Seeing the person and the work and why the fuck we care about it at all.  

You could say that examiners, reviewers, supervisors, readers, editors are not there to care about the person. You could say that.  That they only respond to the work.  You could say this.

It’s pretty rare, though.  Because by being callous and hysterical (I would say that I have just encountered a furious response to my thesis), or frozen critique machines, they are affecting the person also.  

Like anywhere, I have found some great teachers and minds and people in the academic whirlpool.  Vivid ideas and fascinating ways of thinking.  I have loved listening and talking and questioning and reading and listening again and writing, editing even.  Polishing to feel something like a blade.

But this may be the clincher for me.  That there will always be these ones as my peers, at conferences and as peer reviewers, as the crazy subject co-ordinator no tutor wants to work for.  

Truly, mental illness happens.  I know.  I actually don’t judge.  Life can have so much struggle.  Pressure.  Things happen.  Biology, trauma, luck.  Some people live with the massive challenge of this.  I do love this as a part of humanity.  I don’t particularly think that I am above or different or normal.  I have paddled through depression and a horrible premenstrual disorder that means that I have added super-tension and suicidal thoughts, hypersensitivity, anger in cyclic regularity.  

Thankfully, I finally got some drugs and surgery to help this.  It also really helps when I am pregnant and just avoid the whole thing altogether.

But, you see.  I have arrived and tried to practice this principle: whatever I feel, however much the swampiness and poverty and going into debit and not having money for parking circles, each moment is an opportunity.  To be the most human I can with each person.  Each encounter.  

This may sound righteous.  It’s not.  It’s being all of it, feeling all of it: horrendous cramps and crazy migraine tension and listening to a supervisor’s critique and looking to understand them and hold my reaction and respond the best I can.  It’s checking the way that I judge a white male student in my class as privileged and thereby classifying his thoughts.  It’s being aware of all of the shit that many students go through: casual jobs, gloomy career outlook, heaps of assignments, and caring, and still placing a high bar in my expectations.

This is me.  Obviousy not everyone has this approach.

Loving support from friendly peeps says that I am compassionate and passionate.  I swear, almost every anonymous piece of student feedback that I have received says that I am ‘friendly and approachable’, and that this is a rare and very helpful quality as a teacher.

Truly: what’s the point of the whole endeavour?  You know, education.  Research.  Teaching.  Learning.  Writing. Reading.  Lecturing.  Marking.  Critiquing.  

Ideas, yes.  Research and exploration, yes.  But if there is not some attention to a human experience in there: count me out.


Casual Submission

I submitted my Phd thesis a few days ago.

It hasn’t really sunk in yet.  I have been doing a fair bit of casual work, and just sleeping, so I haven’t had much time to stop and reflect that it has Happened.  

Apparently so.  Surreal.  A trickling away of the tasks and to-do’s until I am just uploading a file. Glitches and snags on the way.  Sitting on my bed on a Sunday night with my partner.  Finally after needless glitches angst due to a lack of clear explanation about the uploading process, I couldn’t wait and watch it and see that the upload had failed one more time, so I left the job with my partner.  Then I hear: “Sucess!”

A little bit of tears that night, and the next day while working, probably from exhaustion.  Lots of people are happy for me.  I imagine that I will catch up to their happiness once I have grasped it.

Yet I think that, partly, the process doesn’t help, as there is very little concrete sense of a milestone, an event, a landmark.   Instead, a trickling of an uploading process, a dwindling of final tasks to do, and then a: that will do, I just need this to be gone because I have so much other work.

So that was it.

I have been trying to create my own lunches and coffees on the fly this week.  Like me, most people are busy and  it has felt a little haphazard, so I figure I will have a week or two of rolling catch-ups with people. Which, really, means that I am very lucky.

How strange that this thing, or not even a thing, an atmosphere, a weight, a factor that impacted my life, my other activities, partners, days and nights, a constant low level guilt, is finished with an upload button.  (I still have to finish uploading music files, which hopefully I can get to today).

Having said that, I am very lucky to have some kind and lovely people around me to congratulate me and be happy for me.  

I think the main sense of surreal dislocation is when people say that it is a tremendous achievement: it is, I guess, but the last five years have been a horrible awakening into how a PhD isn’t valued, how I am a job-seeker with the same casual shit prospects, how competitive and mangerialist and horrible much of academic life is, how little value most people place on a PhD, how cynical so many early career researchers are about academia, how little postgrads are valued by their faculties, (yet called on to fill teaching gaps when in panic mode), how little understanding a broader sense of the ‘public’ has of the value of Arts or critique, how the vices of perfectionism, procrastination and anxiety love to cluster in and around researchers who are only valued for their quanitified output, how toxic management of Universities truly is … all of this makes it hard to feel the ACHIEVEMENT.

However, as I read and edited and proofread the thesis itself, I did occasionally go: whoa, that’s right, I remember thinking through that, reading that, writing that … re-drafting that 26 times … and then I get a glimpse of the effort.

It’s done.  Whatever it is, it’s done.

(Until the revisions …)