Friday, March 31, 2006

Small Things

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve gone about my daily life, I’ve observed a number of things which have amused me. In the spirit of the digital age, I took out my camera and recorded them so that I might create a blog post and, thus, share the joy.


Just look at these worthless excuses for hot-cross buns, they’re just loafing about, utterly fruitless in any endeavour...

You should know I bought these by accident. I think I was momentarily nonplussed by the description on the label. All of a sudden, possibilities for puns rushed into my head and I forgot that I like my traditional Easter bakery fare to contain dried fruit; it’s much more a-peel-ing.

What a Steal

After all that nasty misappropriation-of-funds-by-over-zealous-young-stockbrokers business, the National Australia Bank has decided to overhaul its image. Now, instead of the obscure, yet somehow monolithic ‘National’ they once used in their advertisements, they’ve decided to go with the non-threatening, lowercase acronym ‘nab’.

The OED: nab v 2 c. to snatch or seize (a thing); to steal (customers’ money)

Alright, that last bit in parentheses is mine. At least they’re striving for honesty this time.

Walk This Way

Since we’re on the topic of dictionaries, I would like to enter a new word into the English language: pedestrine. I came across this word on a sign near some footpath reconstruction that I saw during a bus trip on the way to the University. The next day I arranged to catch the same bus, which takes an incredibly circuitous route, in order to take a photo and so offer proof that ‘pedestrine’ is part of the vernacular. Alas, after coming upon the sign, I could not get my camera in position quickly enough to take the photo before the bus jerked around the corner. Arbiters of the English language everywhere will have to rely on my efforts with Paint to faithfully reproduce the exact details of the sighting.

As for the meaning of ‘pedestrine’, it is a noun, which I believe refers to any individual who walks in a particularly Australian way, not dissimilar to those who indulge in that particularly Australian way of talking, ‘strine’. One is a ‘pedestrine’ if one wears thongs on one’s feet and walks in no particular hurry along a cracked suburban footpath to the corner shop. A ‘pedestrine’ is encouraged to scuff his or her feet, in fact it is debateable whether one can be a pedestrine if no scuffing occurs.


If anyone decides to write a successful British comedy using the title of this bookshop, I will definitely expect a finder’s fee.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


Today I was a good sister, not such a great PhD student, but in the familial sisterhood stakes, today I think I passed muster.

I arrived at the University at the respectable time of 10am, whereupon, instead of turning the computer on and getting straight to reading and taking notes or brainstorming brilliant (obviously!) ideas, I turned on the computer and set straight to Googling ‘bridal shower invitations’. I was looking for some ideas about how to issue concise and elegant requests for the honour of various persons’ company at a shower to celebrate my sister V’s forthcoming nuptials. There was a lot of ‘cordial’ talk, but I resisted including it, with a lot less effort than I’m resisting the urge to make a pun right now...

Anyway, I had chanced across a note card set—while perusing the shelves of a newsagent during a stationery fetish moment—which were just perfect for shower invitations. They were the right colour and style for the wedding scheme and my sister’s personality; there were just enough cards and envelopes in the packet to cover everyone on the invitation list; and I didn’t have to crack open the piggy bank to pay for them. So with the newsagent’s packet poking out of my handbag, I sat down at the computer and searched for some words that gave all the information that everyone would need, and that wouldn’t be too sickly and floral in their sentiment. (On occasion, I’ve been known to threaten my sister with a gift of one of those saccharine ‘ode to my sister’ type cards/plaques, but I couldn’t actually do that to her. Not for now, at least. *insert evil laugh*.)

I’m happy with the invitations; I printed out the invitation on paper, using a fancy font and then I trimmed the prints to fit into the card. On the right hand side I’ve issued the invitation with the time and place details, while on the left hand side I stuck a map and RSVP information. I think it strikes a nice balance between informative and communicating the quiet celebration of the occasion.

I also made a lame effort at humour by sticking a tiny piece of paper saying ‘Spa!’, diagonally over the ‘Shower’ part of ‘Bridal Shower’. It’s an attempt to convey first, that we’re going to a day spa—massage included—and, second, that there will be no dubious embarrass-the-bride-to-be games involved. I’ve promised champagne, tea and coffee, and fancy snacks. At this stage, I think high-tea fare, such as delicate sandwiches and small cakes will be on the menu. I’m open to suggestions. Anything that can be easily transported in a plastic container and doesn’t require reheating will fit the bill.

When I’d stuck on the address labels I made for the envelopes, I went to post the invitations. I had a slight obsessive compulsive moment when I thought the stamps I bought didn’t match the envelopes very well. I confess I considered asking if there were any stamps available in more muted tones and subject matter than the Commonwealth Games and a crazy looking horse on the run across a bright green paddock, fleeing from a trio of yapping blue heeler pups and a squawking crow. This is a Bridal Shower you know; we’re going to be Ladies. I quashed the impulse to give grief to the postal worker and put the neatly stacked invitations into the post box, two at a time.

I’ve become quite excited about the prospect of this bridal shower. It’s been quite satisfying being able to arrange the day for V, thinking about what she’ll want to do and what she’ll like to eat and drink. On that note, I’ll have to go and buy some strawberry champagne...

Monday, March 27, 2006

Spanish Inquisition: Part Three

I am reading Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. In order to keep myself on task and so finish this 940 page tome, I have enlisted the support that your presence will provide to urge me to continue reading. I will post a record of my progress here at irregular intervals, as well as any comments and questions that are provoked by the text along the way.

III A Series of Improbable Coincidences and a Point of Irreconcilable Difference

You may have thought I’d abandoned Don Quixote and it’s true my progress has been slow, but I have been making my way through it amidst distractions from other novels, my PhD, and a newly discovered obsession with Sudoku. In the month since I last posted on this topic, I’ve inched through another twenty chapters which has brought me almost to the end of ‘The First Part’. In the story, the priest and the barber, with the help of Sancho and some other characters encountered in the mountains, have been successful in drawing Don Quixote back towards his home in La Mancha, by way of the inn where DQ and Sancho stayed earlier. Sancho is reluctant to enter the inn because on his last visit to the establishment he was unceremoniously tossed in a blanket by the innkeeper, his family and various guests, so he is justifiably wary of his reception. But the whole party is greeted warmly, after they promise to pay handsomely, and so settle in for the evening. The inn functions within DQ as a place of fortuitous meetings and happy reconciliations which we learn about through the discovery and recounting of various stories by a whole range of people that DQ meets. That it has taken twenty chapters for the main story to progress so little is evidence that it is a device through which to tell a plethora of other stories. If DQ wasn’t inhabiting a parallel reality, if he was perfectly sane, if he had just stayed at home amongst his trashy novels, there would be no Don Quixote.

In and of themselves, the tales related within the larger novel are of varying interest. Invariably they are about star-crossed lovers and the teller of each story is one half of the doomed couple which is central to their tale. In each story there are overbearing parental figures and duplicitous friends and siblings; in one instance, it is one of the lovers himself who is a philandering cad that causes his wife no end of unhappiness, nevertheless, she still loves him and wants his love in return. Again, I’ll admit to being somewhat impatient with these stories, they seemed to be of no more value than those that Cervantes was apparently criticising, those tales of chivalry where everything is miraculously resolved due to some kind of sorcery or inexplicably fortuitous turn of events. While DQ points to the workings of enchantment and demons to explain anything that thwarts his knight errantry, magic is no explanation for the implausible reconciliations that occur at the inn as all the pining lovers and long lost relatives unwittingly converge upon it and fall into one another’s arms.

I wonder if these unmotivated reconciliations are an example of the irony that I have thus far failed to recognise? And surely this passage must be tongue in cheek?:

He lead by the hand a young lady of about sixteen in travelling dress, so gay, striking, and beautiful that the sight of her impressed them all; and so vividly that, if they had not already seen Dorothea, Lucinda, and Zoraida at that inn, they would have doubted whether she had her match for beauty.
In these lines the reader is introduced to another star-crossed lover, Clara. It may be already clear from the list of the other women who have gathered at the inn, that this is the fourth outlandish description of rarely matched beauty that Cervantes writes. In view of all the literary opinion interspersed throughout this section of the book, I can only conclude that such hyperbole serves a purpose in Cervantes’s telling.

The contributors to 400 Windmills reflect on an earlier section of ‘The First Part’, the library scene, where the Priest assesses Don Quixote’s library of chivalrous tales. While the Priest is deciding which books to burn, it becomes apparent from his commentary on each book that he has in fact read all of those he encounters in the library. It’s a revelation that exposes the Priest as a hypocrite; he is condemning books which he has obviously read, if not necessarily enjoyed—although there is certainly some suggestion that he did take pleasure in some of the works.

In the scenes at the inn, there are two events that are worth discussing to tease out the questions of literature and literary criticism that are first raised at the book burning and which preoccupy ‘The First Part’. The first of these events is the discovery, at the inn, of a written story. A manuscript of The Tale of the Foolish Curiosity is chanced upon by the Priest who is attracted by the title and the fact that it is ‘written in such a good hand’. The Priest’s fellow travellers urge him to read it aloud in order to pass the time and he agrees to read it ‘if only out of curiosity’, allowing that ‘[p]erhaps there will be something pleasant in it’. Is there some meaning to be drawn about the relationship between the priest’s curiosity and that of The Tale? I’m not sure. The story is not one of knight errantry; it’s about Anselmo who decides to test the loyalty of his wife, Camilla, by urging his best friend, Lothario, to seduce her. Lothario points out to Anselmo what a ridiculous idea it is, but Anselmo insists, so Lothario acquiesces. I’m not sure if continuing to explain the story constitutes a spoiler if you haven’t read DQ; perhaps it is safe to say that it doesn’t end so neatly as all the reconciliations that are occurring at the inn. When the telling of The Tale is finished, the Priest declares that he likes it, insofar as the ‘manner of its telling’, but he thinks ‘there is something unconvincing [and impossible] about it’.

I wonder how seriously the Priest’s literary judgements should be taken? He doesn’t seem to admit to reading anything, except out of a kind of insincere curiosity, or to gather fodder for dismissive critiques. Are his opinions nothing more than posturing? Are they offered only as an opportunity to pontificate so that he can perform his status and thus assure himself of it? He has shown he is an avid reader of the tales of chivalry, which in the world of Don Quixote are beneath contempt. Does this undermining of the priest’s critical judgement through the narration suggest that The Tale of the Foolish Curiosity is proffered by Cervantes as an example of writing he condoned? Is the human folly, which is the topic of The Tale, a more worthy subject for exploration, according to Cervantes, than that of fantastic story-telling that characterised the tales of chivalry?

The second event in the most recent chapters I have read is the occasion of another diatribe against the books of chivalry, this time by a Canon in conversation with the Priest. The Canon also admits to reading the books of chivalry, or at least the beginnings of them. Further, he claims to have written a few, but then apparently abandoned the endeavour as unworthy of his station. Are we to suspect the views of the Canon as well as those of the Priest? Again, I’m not sure. The Canon goes on to criticise drama, using the same argument he applies to the books of chivalry. He condemns the producers of plays that serve merely to entertain audiences instead of providing instruction. Thus the Canon at once confirms the Priest’s arguments and so the reader’s suspicions of the Canon's views. But isn’t the Canon and the Priest’s opinion about books of chivalry in accordance with the construction of Don Quixote as a pathetic figure harmed by the absurdist tales? The question of whether the Canon and Priest are indeed as ridiculous as Don Quixote in some way seems to be negated when the Canon nominates a play by Cervantes himself, Numancia, as an example of one which is not absurd. Would Cervantes mock his own work? Now, what am I to conclude about the function of the exasperating coincidences of beautiful women and timely meetings at the inn in Cervantes’s work?

In many respects I think much of my difficulty with Don Quixote thus far is attributable to a lack of agreement with its central thesis. In effect, high culture is privileged over low culture. Chivalric texts are discussed in terms of the irresponsible authors who produce them and the ill-effects on susceptible readers. The Canon concludes his speech by proposing a kind of censorship:

all these evils, and many more of which I will not speak, would cease, if there were some intelligent and judicious person at court to examine all plays before they are performed... anywhere in Spain. Then no magistrate in any town would allow any play to be performed without this man’s approbation, under his hand and seal... Now if the same person or some other were entrusted with the task of examining newly written books of chivalry, no doubt some would be produced of the perfection your worship requires, thus enriching our tongue with the charming and precious treasure of eloquence, and causing the old books to be eclipsed in the bright presence of the new.
I am troubled by the extent to which the prejudices against popular culture and those who enjoy it still exist in the discourse of literary reviews, largely unaltered since the seventeenth century. Perhaps I will never fully appreciate this book as long as I have been ‘corrupted’ by the interrogations of Cultural Studies and its re-evaluation of culture.

Related Posts
Spanish Inquisition: Part Two
Spanish Inquistion: Part One
Tilting At Windmills

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Cyclone Tara

Yesterday I went to a seminar presented by Associate Professor Tara Brabazon, held at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies (CCCS). The talk was pitched to new postgraduate students, in particular those students who hope to have an academic career. The key point of the paper was that if postgraduates in the social sciences and humanities are going to secure ongoing employment in their chosen field, they should plan their careers and be prepared to work.

The advice to plan and work hard would seem to hold true for the attainment of success in any career, but in the context of diminishing opportunities for academic employment for PhD graduates in the social sciences and humanities, even exemplary planning and hard work are not any guarantee of a tenured position. One of the most interesting questions raised by Tara during the session was about the lack of employment prospects for recipients of higher degrees: what are the ethics of supervising bright and capable students through advanced degrees when it’s increasingly apparent that not all of them will find work? Of course that was a question for the already successful academics in the room to ponder. For the neophyte scholar the question was intended to prompt an honest self-appraisal: why do a PhD?

I was interested in some comments made by Professor Tom O’Regan, who was in the audience, which were about publishing but can, I think, be applied to the question of the purpose of the PhD. Tom spoke about the sense of having something to say and wanting to communicate it to an audience or, perhaps more accurately, a public, where your writing might have some positive effect, however you might judge that. While anyone’s PhD is unlikely to be read by more than 5 people, it is one of the necessary and preliminary steps that serves to create a platform from which to communicate more widely; not least because it is from that document graduates are most likely to draw their first scholarly articles.

On the question of adapting the PhD for publication, I was somewhat surprised to hear Tara’s advice that it isn’t necessarily advisable to pitch your PhD as a book, citing most publishers’ aversion to the PhD form. She was firm on the suggestion that the work of the PhD should be rehearsed and adapted into peer-reviewed articles, but she advised that instead of approaching your PhD with the question ‘What’s the title of your book?’ in mind, it would be better to approach your first post-PhD book with the question ‘What’s the title of your second book?’ in mind. The upshot is, if you practically have to start your PhD again in order to adapt it for a (slightly) broader audience, then you might as well get another topic. I was probably startled by Tara’s position on the PhD – first book relationship, because I know of at least three people who have turned their PhDs into books. The prospect of a book deal functions as a kind of post-PhD holy grail to the currently enrolled. I suppose if someone influential believes in your work enough and offers to introduce you to a publisher, you’re not likely to say no. Conversely, Tara’s suggestion to publish articles seems like an excellent way of communicating your completed research and finally moving on from your (never-ending) student days.

The overwhelming impression I got of Tara was one of inexhaustible energy. She is indefatigable. The sheer strength of her personality fuels her through days that, we learned, begin at 3am and last until 10pm. These incredible hours undoubtedly explain her phenomenal success; in a short twelve years she has an extensive list of publications. In the same period she has been showered with teaching awards and mentored 24 PhD students to completion as well. Such a record is unquestionably impressive, but I certainly wouldn’t prescribe it for myself. I cannot work at this pace or intensity. Did I mention that in addition to her PhD, she has since completed a Bachelor of Education, a Master’s of Education and a Graduate Diploma of some description? Phew! There is no doubt that Tara thrives in the environment she has chosen, but I would surely break down if I tried to match her.

What I can take away from the afternoon is the advice to begin planning my career now. I have already decided that I will do a Graduate Diploma in Tertiary Education next year, partly because the School encourages its postgraduates to do this qualification as part of their commitment to our professional development and partly because I think I have a duty to future students to be a professional and qualified teacher (Any former students reading this, please accept my belated apologies). On teaching, I liked Tara’s assertion of its importance in the face of its devaluation through the casualisation of teaching labour and numerous other managerial initiatives. I found the advice about having at least 5 refereed articles/book chapters by the time I finish my PhD to be a tangible goal I could work towards. I think the afternoon also reconfirmed my sense that if I want this academic gig, then I just have to dig in. Even if the tenured job isn’t there as soon as I graduate, I have to keep going. In many ways I feel prepared for this life of work without any immediate reward; if nothing else, being a student for so long prepares you to survive a low income and an uncertain existence, so what’s another couple of years?

There was some suggestion in the room, in the discussion afterwards, that many academics from the baby-boomer generation are approaching retirement in as soon as three years, so there will be a number of positions available to graduating PhD students; in fact, there might even be a dearth of humanities scholars to fill the positions that the boomers leave. Of course, the assumption in that argument is that current levels of funding to Arts Faculties are maintained or increased. One hopes that when the old Professors retire, their positions are advertised. It could, after all, be the perfect opportunity to finally do away with the humanities. A perfectly bloodless coup in which the Utilitarian Economic Rationalists will triumph!

Too dramatic?

Okay. Well did I mention that Tara was one of the markers of my Master’s thesis? She’s one of those people who said nice things to me about my work. It was good to meet her in person after her encouragement via email and through being a referee on my PhD and scholarship applications. She seems to think I have a future in this caper.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Computer Says No

Has anyone ever conducted a study on The Amount of Time Computers Save Us vs. The Amount of Time Computers Waste Us as We Try to Get Them to Do the Things They Purport to Do, But Which they Steadfastly Refuse to Do? I suppose a time efficiency analyst could calculate the time gain or loss down to nano-seconds, but today I will consider the topic from an ethnographic perspective, including anecdotal evidence, to prove the thesis that Computers Waste Time & Test Patience.

Last night I read Clare Dudman’s blog, Keeper of the Snails. She had a terrible day yesterday: her computer discarded half of the words she had written over the past five days. Well, even Clare admits she should have saved her work more frequently, but that does not detract from the overall argument I am proposing. It is only because the computer renders the written word so intangible that they are able to be lost in the first place. Only a cyclonic gust of wind achieves the same effect with words typed or written on paper. And you can at least attempt to save your words in that scenario by chasing after them, with the added benefit that onlookers will be entertained at your slapstick antics. When words are lost on a computer nobody is amused.

Today I arrived at the University at 10am. (A time, I think, that achieves just the right balance between rush hour traffic avoidance and healthy scholarly commitment.) I read an article about the crisis of television studies, cultural studies, the humanities etc and then I thought it was time to solve the problem of not being able to play DVDs on my laptop that has a DVD-ROM drive. I want to maintain a strict separation between home and my research so it’s necessary for me to enable the DVD facility for use at the University because I’ll be watching and analysing television programmes. Why I have to enable it, I have no idea, shouldn’t it just work? Computer says no. Apparently there’s some problem the DVD software is having getting access to the soundcard. Computer says it could be a problem with the DirectX driver that, as far as I understand, mediates between the two. So I downloaded the DirectX from Microsoft. Easy?! Computer says no. After I restarted the computer and the DVD software, I put a DVD in the disk drive. It offered to update the DVD software to the latest version. ‘Alright’, I thought, ‘why not?’ I downloaded the DVD software and restarted the computer, then placed a DVD in the disk drive. Ready, set—computer says no. The audio problem still exists. I go through the trouble shooting steps and ascertain that the soundcard is properly installed and working just fine, which I already suspected since the computer regularly chirps and pings at me to indicate that I’ve breached its strict code of conduct. The trouble shooting process suggests another possibility: I could need to update the driver for the soundcard. Sigh. I am tearing through my download quota. Oh well, it must be done. Computer says no. I’ve found a link on the manufacturer’s site to the download, but now the University is sending me an error message saying it doesn’t recognise my login and password details on the Postgraduate Network. Sigh.

It’s now 1 o’clock. I’ve planned to go to the regular Friday Seminar Series in the School. Graeme Turner is giving a paper: Representations of Muslim-Australians in the Australian Media. He shows us an excerpt from Today Tonight which he analyses and uses to support his argument about “the provisionalisation of citizenship: where the status of Muslim-Australians who are legal citizens of this country is discursively qualified by proposed links between people of their ethnicity, the so-called war on terror, and illegal immigration”. Of course there were computer problems at the beginning—the network wouldn’t allow a Professor at the University to sign on from that particular computer—which fortunately didn’t delay the beginning of the presentation by much, thanks to the presence of others who could sign on. Then there were problems with playing the DVD. Thankfully the technical person turned up as if on cue when the Today Tonight segment was due to be played. Still, it's more incontrovertible evidence that Computers Waste Time & Test Patience.

Back in my office. I call up IT Support and find out the site I’m trying to download from has a URL beginning with ftp, which apparently the University won’t let me access, along with the Australian Taxation Office and other high security sites. For all the spam they let through to my student email, I wonder why they’re worried about the ATO and HP/Compaq; you’d think the University would have figured out that some sites are highly unlikely to contain malicious downloads. At this point, I’m very close to throwing a tantrum. The IT Support person suggests I download the driver from a non-university computer, save it to a disk and load the software that way. I call my sister on the off-chance she is home. Her fiancé is, so he offers to download the software and send it to me via email. Two hours ago he said it was successfully downloaded and that he had sent it in an attachment to my Yahoo! email account. I keep checking the Inbox, but computer says no.

Quod Est Demonstradum: Computers Waste Time & Test Patience

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Thesis Statement

I’ve been officially enrolled in my PhD for six weeks now. As might be expected, the very first flush of enthusiasm has waned and the reality of life as a PhD student, intent upon finishing on time, has set in. This realisation was precipitated by the beginning of the teaching semester, which started a couple of weeks ago. While my friends and colleagues were preparing for their classes, it occurred to me that my days of work ahead would not be punctuated by writing and delivering lectures, planning tutorials, consulting with students and marking assessment. For the past few years, to varying degrees, all of these teaching related activities have structured my existence. I have, effectively, had my timetable set by the availability of lecture and tutorial rooms at the various institutions where I’ve worked. Now, without any classes to attend as either a student or a teacher, I became aware that I would have to keep myself on schedule. My first reaction was, ‘This is weird, I’ll have to start writing myself to-do-lists’. Then I felt slightly adrift, a state that was helped by 3,630 results that were returned from an Australian & New Zealand Reference Centre search I did on the terms ‘quality’ and ‘television’. New Zealand papers have a lot to say about the quality, or lack thereof, of television in all its guises; as does the Illawarra Mercury. I spent half a day thinking, ‘I’ll never get through all these articles’ and ‘I don’t even want to know about New Zealand newspapers. How do I get rid of them? Who cares about the quality of the soccer/rugby/cricket/etc game that was televised? ’. Then I remembered that I actually do know how to use databases and I could get what I wanted from searching a selection of major Australian newspapers, so I began to reap fewer and more useful results. Now, if you care to be bored, I can talk endlessly about quality journalism and current affairs, quality children’s television, the CD quality sound and DVD quality pictures of digital television technology, and, finally, quality television drama, in which case you may choose from an additional menu: tele-plays, mini-series, series and serials.

While I was cast upon the sea-without-scheduled-ports, I also began to doubt my decision to leave a month between meetings with my supervisor. The search into ‘quality television’ had been instigated by a somewhat confused perusal of television schedules, where I’d had no idea in what category to place any programme, or indeed even what the exact distinctions between categories (genres/formats) were. I know there are problems with using ‘quality’ that I will never solve, but since it’s a term that’s used so widely in discussions about what’s worth watching on television, as a concept, it’s affective. Just tonight, while Kerry O’Brien was interviewing the Communications Minister Helen Coonan about new media ownership legislation and the decline in the ABC’s production of drama, he asked her how she proposed to enable the ABC to produce ‘quality’ drama without a significant increase in funding. Anyway, amid the confusion of the microfilm and photocopied television schedules, I thought, ‘I really need to rearticulate my purpose here, preferably with my supervisor’s wisdom on hand’. I felt better after I’d confirmed a meeting with him around the time I’d proposed at our last appointment. Somehow, having a firm date in my diary helped focus my work plan. We had that meeting on Friday, and again things seem clearer—I have assigned myself tasks to do—but I did ask for our next meeting to be in three weeks time.

The other observation I have about my new unscheduled existence is that my workday is adjusting to my body clock, which has never really liked getting up with kookaburras. My start time has become progressively later. On the one hand I worry about this, it seems to signify a loss of control and a lack of commitment to a work ethic. But I rationalise by wondering if there’s any point in leaving home at the same time as the 9 to Fivers when I have to spend twice the time getting to the University, due to rush hour traffic, than if I leave an hour later? It’s a sound argument. Especially if I take account of the journey home as well, for which I also leave later to avoid the inevitable crush. Surely it’s a better use of my time to take advantage of the flexibility that student life affords me?

I’m still thinking through these new developments.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Presidents of the United States of America

A few years ago I stopped watching The West Wing. In part, it was due to the erratic scheduling practices of Channel Nine, but since I recently followed Surface from Thursday at 7.30pm to a Saturday at 6.30pm, before it spent its last weeks being screened at midnight on Friday, I have to concede it was more than a programming issue that saw me abandon the show. The problem was that the second Gulf War broke out. Suddenly a chasm opened up between the educated, liberal President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, and the real-life incumbent, George W. Bush. While I admired Jed Bartlett as he turned to the Classics, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Payne for lessons in democratic and ethical leadership, I could not ignore the fact of George W’s ascension to power through nepotism and questionable election outcomes. I felt manipulated into admiring the office of the President of the USA at the very time it was sanctioning a war fabricated to serve its own interests, so I stopped watching.

Now The West Wing is screening on the ABC, I’ve started watching it again. In part, this is due to the more stable programming practices of the public broadcaster; and no ads is always a bonus. Even as I watched the first episode the ABC screened, however, I felt drawn into the soul stirring speeches written by Rob Lowe’s character and, again, I resented the sense of being cynically manoeuvred into cheering on the world’s super power. I guess I’m in a quandary because, considered separately from any contemporary political context, The West Wing is ‘good television’. It has great acting and smart dialogue that commands your attention. But I wonder if, in spite of its representation of a liberal President, it hasn’t been one of the best purveyors of the conviction that the United States of America is a ‘natural’ world power.

Another television drama that showcases the office of the President of the United States is Commander In Chief. I’ve made a point of watching this programme since it began here three weeks ago. I’ve always liked Geena Davis, and was looking forward to seeing her in a role that seems made for her Amazon-like presence. Then there’s Kyle Secor who plays the ‘first gentleman’ to Davis’s President. He was in one of the best programmes on television, ever, Homicide: Life On The Streets and, again, I’ve been wanting to see him in something to match his earlier work. Further reason to watch Commander In Chief is Donald Sutherland. What a despicable character he plays, and to absolute perfection, as the Speaker of the House who spends all of his time plotting to undermine his President’s authority. I will never forget seeing Sutherland in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film Novecento (1900); he played the most brutal, shocking character, one of Mussolini’s Black Shirts, that I have ever seen on film.

While I think Commander In Chief has some of the elements of ‘good’ television, my position towards it is similar to the one I take to The West Wing. I feel manipulated. Who, aside from a misogynist, wouldn’t cheer at the sight of a woman in the White House? For all the maligning of Muslim attitudes towards women, Indonesia and Pakistan are way ahead of the US and Australia on the ‘female leader’ scorecard. When Davis’s President threatened military action to negotiate the release of a woman in Nigeria who had been sentenced to death for adultery, I did my very own Mexican wave. And who could not be impressed by the feat of wresting power from a corrupt General in a fictitious South American country? In that instance, the President managed to avenge the assassination of seven DEA officers and restore a democratically elected President in one fell swoop—all without any further loss of life. I’m sure George W. wishes that setting the military on another country’s resident dictator could be such a tidy affair. At the end of the day, he could settle back on a couch in the White House, his wife and child sleeping at the other end, the seal of the President of the USA woven into the carpet beneath his feet, and rest assured that American might was keeping the world in check.

I suppose what I wish is that Americans would actually bother to elect a thoughtful and learned President. Instead of bitching about their democratic right not to vote, and damning us all with the consequences of their complacency, I’d like Americans to consider the responsibility they have when they go to the polls, not just to their own country, but to the people of the so-called ‘free world’, over which their President asserts himself as leader. Failing that, I’d like to be able to vote in the next US election, so I too could have a say about the future of the free-world I inhabit.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Hair Apparent

They used to say that fat was a feminist issue, and perhaps it was before medical discourse put an end to that political statement with all its talk of obesity and heart failure. I remember reading somewhere that ‘hair’ was also proposed as a site of feminist activism. The writer in question was not talking about the decision by some feminists to refrain from using depilatory products, but cases of extreme hirsuteness in women. I can see why, with such a narrow focus, that the suggested action did not become more widespread. Beyond not shaving your underarms, excessive hair, or hypertrichosis, would seem to be something that affects a limited number of people—women and men—who would not necessarily frame their experience in the terms put forward in the article. From a feminist perspective it would seem more pertinent to focus on the subject of socially prescribed hair removal by women.

When I was thirteen and on the way home from high school one day, a boy said to me, as I sat down on the bus, ‘You should shave your legs’. It was one of those moments in my life when I felt paralysed by the feelings that consumed me. Although I recognised the unjust nature of his words, the way they (unconsciously?) sought to control me, at the same time I felt his words as an insult that went to the core of my burgeoning femininity and found it wanting.

I often recall that boy’s statement when I struggle to remove the hair from my legs. I also recall the response of a writing tutor about my attempts to write through my younger feminist quandary on the subject of hair removal as ‘paranoid’. I was a little taken aback by the description at the time. Before that I was sure I was going to transform the world with my deep insights into female oppression.

At the beginning of March I was quite excited when the temperature dropped heralding the change of the season—at least as much as we have seasons in Brisbane. It meant that I could begin wearing jeans (no ironing, yay!). The timing was perfect. I was due to use the depilatory gel again, since my leg hairs were becoming visible from ten paces, but I just didn’t feel like enduring the mess, the standing around waiting for it to take effect. Snore. But then the weather changed and I was left wearing jeans in 30°C heat, trying to convince myself, after more days than I care to reveal, that the student’s uniform, les jeans delavé, were très chic.

Today I removed the hair from my legs, which really only took 5 minutes of standing around, staring at the ceiling and thinking all of the above thoughts. I am now looking forward to wearing a different skirt everyday next week.

I just have to do some ironing.

Oh, I forgot to do my underarms so I can only wear shirts with sleeves. (I was just reminded of the time a man came up to me at a bus stop and stuck his finger in my arm pit to touch my underarm hair. Ewww! Gross! Shudder. It was on Christmas Day for gawd’s sake.)

Perhaps people will not notice my underarms. Perhaps they will be dazzled by my shiny new hair colour—light copper brown—that I also attended to today.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Little Unwell

The first time I changed the picture on my profile, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious statement about any evolution in my identity, but more a case that I wanted to post another wonderful drawing by Adrian Tomine, one that more adequately captured my state of being at the time. So I made the change from the paranoid girl at the bus stop, to the picture of the sleeping girl, which is how I spent much of my time when I was intermittently employed. I still think that both of these pictures illustrate an aspect of me, but now there is yet another Tomine picture that is more appropriate to my recent postgraduate activity. This new profile picture is one that originally appeared in The New Yorker, presumably as part of a review or article about the film Sylvia, a biopic of Sylvia Plath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Evidently this is a depiction of Paltrow as Plath during a productive stage of writing. It seems necessary to emphasise that it’s the presence of Paltrow/Plath at the typewriter amidst a well-stocked library that has made me choose this picture, rather than the other possible connotation of depression and suicide that any mention of Plath invokes. It’s all too easy to forget what a bright young woman Plath was; she won a Fulbright Scholarship, which is what first took her to England. But somehow that gets lost amidst the narrative of her as a down-trodden wife and mother driven to suicide by an absent, adulterous husband. Perhaps the popular imagination is still in thrall, not only with the notion of the tortured artist, but also the mad woman. Is it easier to believe these powerful myths which, on the one hand, glorify mental illness and, on the other, limit the ways we can remember a woman who, for the most part, was an intellectual and creative force to be reckoned with?

Lest I seem too eager to distance myself from the spectre of depression that accompanies Sylvia Plath, I should say that even without Tomine’s drawing as my avatar, depression haunts me. It’s out of my own experience with depression and its treatment that I got the idea for my PhD thesis topic, which will look at representations of psychotherapy in ‘quality’ television drama. Before I came up with this idea, I had questioned whether I was suited for an academic career. Certainly, during my worst periods, I had been incapable of making a piece of toast to accompany a bowl of tinned soup, never mind work the long hours and produce the publications that are demanded of academics. I suppose as I emerged from depression and began to work constructively on finishing my Master’s, I started to notice the world again, to read and watch the news, which I hadn’t felt able to for several years. I remember a news item about a man who had taken too much Zoloft and then killed his wife. In summation at his trial, the judge had implicated the drug in the defendant’s actions. The judge’s comments seemed to take no account of the fact that the man hadn’t taken the drug as it was prescribed by his doctor or, indeed as the literature accompanying the drug advised. The defendant had been unable to sleep after taking the prescribed dose, and so he had taken more. My sister, who is a nurse, explained to me that the man was older and so was used to an older generation of psychotropic drugs which you did take more of when the initial dose didn’t seem effective. While that explained why the man took more Zoloft than was safe, it didn’t, to my mind, condemn the drug as inherently dangerous, which was the implication of the judge’s statement as it was reported. This case struck me as just one example of the popular ignorance surrounding the use of psychotropic drugs and depression.

My heightened awareness of mental health and its treatment as it was represented in the news media, extended to my viewing of fictional television programmes. I began to notice that so many characters, at some point or another, ended up in therapy. When Sydney from Alias returned home after being missing for two years, presumed dead, the CIA, her employer, sent her off to group and individual therapy sessions, as part of standard procedure for agents who’d had similar experiences (Of course, CIA agents go missing and mysteriously reappear in this way, all the time). When Nick Fallin from The Guardian threw his mobile phone across a court room in an apparently inappropriate expression of anger, he was ordered by the judge to enter into a series of therapy sessions. He said nothing the entire time he went to those sessions, except to say that he wasn’t going to talk. Then there’s the whole Law & Order franchise and other crime/police dramas like Halifax f. p., Cracker and Wire In The Blood, where psychiatric assessments are instrumental in profiling criminals and their behaviour. I could keep going; I haven’t even mentioned The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. And then there’s that wonderful moment in the first season of Desperate Housewives, where Bree offers the psychiatrist she and Rex are seeing her appraisal of Freud: ‘Think of all the things his mother sacrificed so that he might gain an education and achieve greatness, and what does he do? He comes up with a theory that blames her for everything!’ Or words to that effect.

I’m not interested in whether or not the programmes I eventually write about show positive or negative representations of psychotherapists and the psychotherapeutic process; it’s more about the uses to which the characters are put within the narratives that might offer an insight into contemporary social/cultural/political identity. I am intrigued that David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, has said that he was helped by psychotherapy. Dr Jennifer Melfi was born out of that experience, and while she is generally perceived to be a ‘realistic’ representation of the profession, The Sopranos isn’t simply an apology for psychotherapeutic practices either. This is the point at which my intellectual interest sparks. I have read some scholarly texts that critique therapeutic discourse and its attendant practices implicating it in the perpetuation of a kind of false-consciousness. There is no doubt that therapeutic discourse is a pervasive one, but there is something in the tone of what I have read that renders it a totalising one. Perhaps it is necessary to overstate the case in order to make the first arguments. I am intrigued that David Chase writes about the psychotherapeutic process, with full knowledge of what is useful about it, while still, I think, retaining a critical position in relation to it as a powerful form of knowledge and mode of governance.

In the news this week, another report, this time about scientists who have isolated the ‘blue’ gene (that pun could only be intended). Apparently they were surprised to discover that while more women have depression, sex is not a factor which determines whether one has the gene or not. The scientists stressed the role of ‘nurture’ or environment in the development of the condition. I am certain (hope?) the research contains details and nuances that were not reported, surely scientists could not just be concluding that environmental factors are paramount in the development and, importantly, the diagnosis of depression? Isn’t this something that feminist scholars and writers have been saying for years, without the benefit of knowing about genetics? Think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea? There seems to be something very hopeful about scientists who wish to find purely biological reasons to solve a whole host of social injustices. Still, think of how medical discoveries had they come sooner, would have helped T.S Eliot’s first wife and perhaps even Plath.

If there is one image from Sylvia that consumes me, it’s that of Plath/Paltrow standing in a public telephone box calling everyone she could think of to come and help her, to no avail. In the sequence of the film, it is not long after this scene that Plath plans and commits suicide. It is this sense of Plath as isolated and abandoned, solely responsible for the care of her small children, for which we are perhaps most unforgiving of Ted Hughes. It is such a tough issue; being responsible and caring for someone with a debilitating mental illness would be such a lot for one ordinary person, who has a right to their own life and happiness, to bear. We would all like to think, I suppose, that we would do everything for the unwell person in our lives, and conversely that we wouldn’t be abandoned by those we most relied upon, even after we had done everything we could to push them away.

Last week I read a book that I discovered while browsing the shelves at Borders. 98 Reasons for Being by Clare Dudman is about the historical figure, Dr Heinrich Hoffman, a physician at a mental institution in Frankfurt during the 1850s. He was also an author of fiction, including the illustrated book of children’s tales, Struwwelpeter . The 98 reasons for being of the title are Hoffman’s patients, the inmates at the asylum, whom he worries over, trying to cure using the latest medical thinking to alleviate their suffering. I was effected by this book in a way I hadn’t anticipated when I first began to read it. While I was intrigued by the topic of the beginning of modern psychiatry, I was initially put off by the voice of one of the patients, which is italicised throughout, and begins rather incoherently. I wasn’t sure if I could be drawn into the world of the novel if I had to decipher the disjointed sentences of Hannah’s thoughts. Hannah’s voice becomes clearer as her connection to the world is restored, so I soon became pulled into her story. The other characters who populate the asylum have been on my mind as well since I finished reading the book. The reader is privy to Hoffman’s doubts about his treatment of his patients through his conversations with Hannah and his inner thoughts. He is convinced that there are always physical causes for mental illness and disagrees with the ‘alienists’ (psychiatrists) about the value of talking. He reluctantly resorts to talking to Hannah, who does not talk, after he has tried a whole range of what now seem barbaric treatments, that seem to involve a lot of water. Hoffman worries that he is causing more harm than good, especially when he reflects that some people think mental illness doesn’t exist. There is one patient, Josef, who prefers to be called Josephine Champagne and wears his hair in long ringlets. His family has committed him and he is deprived of all the beautiful things he loves. I kept picturing the bearded lady from Little Britain while I was reading. The joy that Josef expresses when he is able to dress up in beautiful things reminded me of the demeanour of the bearded lady. Some of the illnesses that are portrayed in 98 Reasons are recognisable, such as the compulsion to check everything which afflicts Grete. She is compelled to check her feet and hands and any implements she is holding before making any kind of move. She also has anorexia. Other illnesses are obscure, to me at least. There is one woman who has an encroaching paralysis. Perhaps this is cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy? And epileptics were housed in mental asylums as well. One passage, written to reflect a report that summarises the thinking of the day on epilepsy, reads:

[A]ttacks may be prevented by applying a tourniquet to an arm, amputating a toe... It has also been found to be of some benefit to amputate small tumours, to fire a gun near by, to violently pull back an arm or head. It is important always to ensure the evacuation of worms or foreign bodies lodged in the stomach. Patients may also, of course, be bled and purged of mucus...

We have not found the following to be of any palliative value at all: earthworms, the dried afterbirth of a first-born, ground-up human skull, or dried brain thereof, backbone of a lizard stripped of its flesh by ants, the heart and liver of a mole or a frog...

The reader is also offered insight into the lives of the attendants at the asylum, some of whom are capable of terrible cruelties and others who are just poor and desperate.

98 Reasons for Being is a ‘weirdly evocative novel’ and ‘memorably poignant’, which is how one of the review blurbs on the cover describes it. On the one hand it made me reflect that I am extremely grateful that I had depression in this day and age rather than at any other time in history and, as with my thoughts about The Sopranos, I think it offers a portrait of psychiatry as much more than a profession inhabited by crude caricatures who molest their patients or simply seek to control the unconventional with little reflection on their practices. It’s a book that contemplates the mistakes and prejudices of early mental health practices but allows for the modest successes that physicians like Hoffman also effected.