Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Current Events

The Ambivalence of Organisation

I just noticed the following in an article by Kenneth Davidson in The Age Business Day:

It is an inconvenient truth that unionised work forces can contribute to labour productivity by driving up wages faster than non-unionised work forces and this provides a stimulus to innovation, as employers will be motivated to economise on the use of labour by capital substitution.

Although this wasn’t my focus when I wrote recently on Marx’s chapter on the Working Day, this is one of the themes that plays out in that and subsequent chapters: the organisation of the working classes and the regulation of capital by the state and the public sphere are positioned in Marx’s narrative as factors that open the door for properly modern, mechanised industry – for the ongoing increases of productivity that characterise capitalism.

Davidson’s article doesn’t go on to address the paradox that working class organisation can thus lead to a displacement of the need for human labour – or the question so central to Marx, of how the need for human labour nevertheless continues to be reasserted in new forms, no matter how high productivity rises.

For readers from outside Australia who might click through to the article: no, Davidson isn’t just engaging in rhetorical flourish when he mentions the need to reinstate unfair dismissal laws.

There Are Many Copies. And They Have a Plan.

There’s no reason for me to post this, other than that I keep laughing at it every time I glance at the newspaper. I’ve noticed the link URL and accompanying photo have gotten more amusing, and the article has climbed to a more prominent place on the news website, over the course of the day – probably because folks like me were emailing it to various people they knew. This is Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty discussing… er… the brave new world of policing:

A cylonMr Keelty said it was hard to estimate how much money the AFP would need to combat technology-based crime.

But he identified the use of robotics and cloning as future challenges.

“Our environmental scanning tells us that even with some of the cloning of human beings – not necessarily in Australia but in those countries that are going to allow it – you could have potentially a cloned part-person, part-robot,” he said.

My suggestion: the first budget request should be dedicated to an overhaul of whatever “environmental scanning” is. ‘Cause somehow I’m not convinced that it’s giving them the best intelligence.

Just In Time

I have a specific order of attack when I encounter a new blog. I’m generally drawn there by a link from somewhere or other, so I’ll start wherever that link lands me. If something about the voice of that post piques my interest, I’ll then go back to the beginning – to the very first post in the archive – to see how and why the blog started. If that beginning is intriguing, promising, or puzzling, I’ll then work my way forward through the archives from there, trying to capture a sense of the milestones through which that blog author discovered their “voice”. Sometimes, of course, this voice is there from the beginning – as seems to be the case for a blog I stumbled across today: Doing Justice, whose first post captures several issues I think are important, not just in relation to blogging, but in relation to critical theory:

Many people who blog on law-related topics are quick and smart (and, I’m guessing, male). I am smart, but I am not quick. By the time I’m aware that an issue is “hot” it has been so thoroughly examined by all the usual suspects that there seems nothing left to say about it. And yet, as I rattle through the archives trying to catch up with what was said last week, I’m often left feeling that discussions crystalize prematurely. Issues become defined and sides are taken before some important or, at least, peculiar, facets have been allowed to emerge. My comment that might have sent the conversation in an interesting (to me) direction after the first hour or two no longer seems to have any relevance by the end of the day. Maybe I never understood what the conversation was about, but maybe I did and my failure to speak up allowed a door to be shut that would have been better left open.

The post concludes: “So, this blog. I’ll go ahead and comment, secure in the knowledge that no one will hear me.” Since I read new blogs backwards, I have no idea whether the author still feels this way. But the juxtaposition of the post content, with the way in which the post resonated for me when I read it today, caused me to think about how, for all the speed and rapid shifts of attention that get so much attention in analyses of the blogosphere, what is perhaps most striking about the medium is actually the way in which it sediments these rapidfire discursive movements, ossifying discussions after history has left them behind, and preserving ephemeral thoughts for future reflection. If by chance the tumult prevents you from being heard when the topic was fresh, the thought remains, ready to be recaptured when, perhaps, it is no longer too new to hear…

The Apparition of Postmodernity

So I was going to write something on the concept of theoretical pessimism, but then got distracted by this article from The Australian on the rather severe absence of opportunities for students to study Australian literature systematically at university level – severe as in:

Next year, the University of Sydney may have no students taking up the country’s only honours program in Australian literature.

Readers not from Australia may not appreciate how local discussions of anything vaguely related to literary matters – or, more broadly, education policy – somehow always come back to postmodernism. Sure enough, this article obliges:

THE decline of Australian literature is also blamed on funding cuts and the inexorable rise of postmodern theory, a charge that supporters of that theory deny strenuously.


But this indifference doesn’t just come from the pincer movement of academics – Eurocentric traditionalists on one flank, postmodern theorists on the other – who have pushed Australian literature to the periphery.


Pierce declares that the tertiary sector’s neglect of our literature exposes a disconnect between the public and academics: “It isn’t as if people have stopped reading Australian literature. It’s a dissociation of the readership from the formal study of Australian literature.”

He says the rot set in when academics who “abased” themselves before the altar of literary theory acquired institutional power and “captured literature departments in the ’80s”.

Postmodern literary theory – and its near-relation, cultural studies – do not accord canonical works, Australian or otherwise, a privileged place. Such theories hold that everything from Big Brother to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Peter Carey’s Bliss is a text, thus diminishing the role of serious literature as a defining cultural force.

The bitter divisions provoked by the rise of theory are well known. Yale University professor Harold Bloom has attacked cultural studies as an enemy of reading and part of the “lunatic destruction of literary studies”.

In Australia, what remains largely unexplored is the role imported, voguish theories have played in the destruction of our literature.

I have a strange fascination with the way in which postmodernism has assumed this sinister reds-under-beds status in Australian policy discussions. The article is filled with more mundane explanations for the plight of Australian literary studies at the tertiary level: longstanding Anglophilia and deprecation of local cultural production; a shift in student interests away from the humanities and, for those who remain within the humanities, toward programs such as creative writing, and away from the study of literary texts; changing structures for the funding of tertiary education, which have resulted in pressures on universities to demonstrate the financial viability of individual degree programs; the drying up of career paths and publication opportunities for tertiary students of Australian literature… But these mundane and obvious causal explanations apparently lack the lustre of postmodernism as a form of spectral causation – after all, how can you beat something that can be demonised as “imported” and “voguish”, that “captures” departments and causes “rot” and that, apparently, carries a faint whiff of idolatry, requiring as it does ritual abasement before an altar of literary theory.

The casual juxtapositions sprinkled through the article are equally problematic – the absence of any impulse to try to reconcile or make sense of contradictory statements suggests the degree to which postmodernism functions as a spectre. Thus the article notes that postmodernism denies privileged status to the canon, while also asking readers to imagine that Eurocentric traditionalists have cooperated with postmodernists in a pincher move to squeeze out the teaching of Australian literature… The article also cites funding cuts and postmodernism in the same sentence – hitting here on something that may represent an actual relationship, but mainly in the sense that the assault on specific forms of academic theory is often hauled out as a political rationalisation for funding cuts, on the grounds that the sorts of “frivolous” studies postmodernism is claimed to promote, are then taken to exemplify why universities must be made more accountable in their use of government funds.

It would be obvious to regular readers that I am very critical of many theoretical approaches that could legitimately be described as postmodernist. The spectrisation of the term “postmodernism” in local policy discussions, however, has very little to do with either the theory or the practice of any kind of actual academic theory. Whatever the intentions, the term “postmodernism” in Australian policy discourse has come to function as a useful deflector of political energies – invoking this term predictably draws out people compelled to defend the theoretical tradition, whose participation in this ritual debate then reinforces the impression that the political dispute actually has something to do with academic theory. Coverage of the various criticisms and defenses of postmodernism then dominates the public discussion. Meanwhile issues that, from my point of view, would be worth a more serious and sustained discussion in the public sphere – changes to the structure of funding for tertiary education, for example – can hide in plain sight, while the heat of the postmodernism debate helps ensure that light rarely falls on them…

Maybe I’m writing about pessimism after all… ;-P

Remembering Clifford Geertz

Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study has posted this announcement on the death of Clifford Geertz. Savage Minds posted on the subject yesterday, and has now also assembled a collection of links on Geertz’s work. I haven’t yet written here on Geertz as a cultural theorist, although I have used his works often in my teaching – his influence crossed many disciplinary boundaries, and he will be sorely missed.

In Case You Were Worried…

For those concerned about the fate of Channel Seven’s Naomi Robson, currently being detained by Indonesian authorities for attempting to work as a journalist while on a tourist visa, I can offer one piece of reassurance: The Age report suggests that Peter Meakin, the chief of news and current affairs for the station, is taking pains to reassure everyone that Today Tonight has no plans to deviate from its established journalistic standards. According to The Age:

He [Meakin] denied the story was an attempt to boost Today Tonight’s credibility.

“It was an attempt to get a good story,” he told ABC radio.

“We don’t decide what stories to do on the basis of journalistic credibility.”

Hostile Climate…

A balloon-clad stripper entertained scientists at a conference on global warming.Australian readers will already be familiar with the recent story about how scientists gathered for a conference on climate change discovered… new reasons for temperatures to rise. According to The Age articles linked above, the events organiser, one Professor Mike Hutchinson from the Centre for Resource and Environment Studies at ANU, booked what was apparently originally intended to be a 45-minute burlesque routine. The routine was cut after ten minutes, when a number of the scientists present began to walk out. Ten minutes, however, was evidently enough to allow a stripper covered in balloons to circulate around the room, offering the use of a pin to consenting scientists, and for other sexually-suggestive jokes and performances.

The event was apparently intended as the highlight of the 17th Annual Australia New Zealand Climate Change Forum, and had received sponsorship from the Australian federal government, the Australian Research Council, and others. In response to complaints about the event, the ANZ Climate Change Forum organising committee has offered to allow sponsors to withdraw, and at least some government sponsors have indicated that they will be taking up the offer.

I’m not personally sure what to say about this incident – mainly because I find the concept of scheduling this kind of entertainment for what claims to be a scientific conference so bizarre that I’m not sure I can really add anything meaningful to the… er… bare facts. Maybe I’m just not attending the right conferences, but I’ve generally seen conference entertainment like, you know, speakers who have something interesting or controversial to say about issues related to the conference topic…

I notice that one of the women involved in the burlesque performance has asked:

“Why is it any different to hiring a ventriloquist? Professor Hutchinson may well have misread his guests, but it’s a statement about how fearful we as a society are about sex. Are we also saying scientists are not sexual people, for heaven’s sake?”

I realise that much of the debate occurring over this incident relates primarily to the issue of gender relations, particularly given the sensitivities around recruiting and retaining qualified women in the sciences, and so it makes sense that most of the discussion has centred on the issue of comfort or discomfort with sexuality in a professional space. I have to admit, though, I’d also find it fairly bizarre to find myself entertained by a ventriloquist at an academic conference…

So I’ve become a bit curious about whether this incident seems even more odd to me than it should, given that my major form of entertainment is dragging interesting people to coffee shops to talk about social theory, and I perceive conferences primarily as opportunities to meet new people for this purpose… In others’ experience, is there a recent precedent for this kind of “entertainment” at academic conferences?

[Note: photo of burlesque performer Rebecca Gale @2006 The Age, URL: ]

The Falling Man

Reading the news this morning, I stumbled across a review of Henry Singer’s documentary 9/11: The Falling Man, which centres on Richard Drew’s iconic, but apparently quickly suppressed, photograph of a person falling from the Twin Towers. Read more of this post

Homeland Insecurity

Little Red BookSavage Minds drew my attention to the story, reported originally in the Standard Times South Coast Today, that a UMass Dartmouth student was visited by the Department of Homeland Security after requesting a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book via interlibrary loan.

My initial reaction, posted to Savage Minds, was that the story seemed a bit… odd. It’s admittedly been a while since I lived in the US, but I never had to provide my social security number to request a book from interlibrary loan. And then there’s the issue of Homeland Security priorities: why would a request for a single work by Mao take priority, given all of the other issues students and faculty research that are more closely related to immediate security threats? And the further problem that the story is essentially a third-hand account: a student described the incident to two professors, who in turn recounted it several weeks later to a news reporter looking for reactions to the recent revelations on Bush’s authorisation of warrantless surveillance of US citizens.

Not surprisingly, others had similar questions and, as the story bounced around the blogosphere, some of these folks set about investigating whether the story were a hoax. (I was lazier – after some initial internet searches to confirm that the newspaper and reporter appear to be real, and that the professors named in the article appear to exist and teach in relevant areas, I satisfied myself with emailing the problem to the good folks at Snopes.)

As this investigation has unfolded, the story has become, if anything, odder than the one reported in the original article. A copycat story, repeating the narrative of the original, but transposing the events to UCSC and naming Bruce Levine as the faculty source, began circulating – and was quickly demonstrated to be a hoax. And minor facts of the original article were also quickly disproven: social security numbers are not collected by UMass Dartmouth for campus transactions – whether for interlibrary loan or other purposes – nor does the library there have any record of anyone placing an interlibrary loan request for Mao’s Little Red Book.

At the same time, the reporter who published the original story has insisted that the story was sincere, and that he published after confirmation from the two university professors named in the article. One of those professors – Brian Glyn Williams – has stepped forward to defend the still-anonymous student but, in the process, has provided a few other details about the incident that are stranger than those reported in the original article. According to Williams, UMass has no record of the interlibrary loan request because the request was made through another library entirely, and the Homeland Security officers personally picked up the offending book from the source library, and took it with them to the student’s home, when they went to enquire to what purpose the student had requested the book.

The story now sits in a very awkward place, with many people suspecting that the student may have misrepresented the facts, or even invented the story in its entirety, without realising that it would suddenly reach a far wider – and more critical – audience. Others have argued that, if the story has even a grain of truth, it merits concern – and that the recent wiretapping revelations lend the story some credence, even if specific facts may not be fully correct.

I have to position myself on the skeptical side of the continuum on this one. I am very curious to know whether there is any relation between the story as reported, and the actual events (was the student visited by Homeland Security, but for another reason? was there some inadvertant miscommunication between the professors and the student, resulting in a somewhat distorted story that hit the press? etc.). Others are trying to get the student to come forward, and Homeland Security to comment, so we may have a clearer story soon.

Update (22 Dec.): While Boing Boing has posted an update that quotes library and university sources who do not believe the story is a hoax, Aaron Nicodemus, the reporter who originally broke the story, has published an update that quotes sources from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI who are highly skeptical that an investigation would proceed as reported in the original article. Nicodemus writes:

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said the story seemed unlikely.

“We’re aware of the claims,” said Kirk Whitworth, a DHS spokesman in Washington, D.C.

“However, the scenario sounds unlikely because investigations are based on violation of law, not on the books an individual might check out from the library.”

Mr. Whitworth pointed out that while the original story stated the student was visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the DHS does not actually have its own agents. Under the umbrella of the DHS are Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Inspector General, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Coast Guard, among others.

Mr. Whitworth could not comment on the record whether the agency monitors inter-library loans, or whether there is a watch list of books that the agency maintains.

An FBI spokeswoman was similarly skeptical.

“I have never heard that we would go after someone because of a book,” said Gail Marcinkiewicz, who works in the FBI’s Boston office. “That event in itself is not a criminal activity. I can’t imagine how we would follow up something like that. Everyone is protected under the First Amendment, which would include what you would read.”

Nicodemus has attempted to contact the student and the student’s parents, but they have refused to comment.

Update (24 Dec): BoingBoing now reports that the story has been confirmed as a hoax. News articles covering the hoax admission can be found at the Boston Globe, and at South Coast Today. It will be interesting to see, as Robert KC Johnson has asked, what action, if any, UMass Dartmouth will take. It will also be interesting to see, as Savage Minds has suggested, whether this hoax will now be used to discredit legitimate accounts of the abuse of investigative powers in the war on terror.