Saturday, August 05, 2006

Recipes, rules, plans, instructions

Cultural study is the study of everyday life. A culture is common meanings and the product of an entire people. This is the thought process of everyday life and the study of culture is a useful tool for understanding thought itself. Culture is concerned with meaning and practice and can be analysed through its relationship with power structures. This essay will discuss the history of how culture came to be seen in this light and how it now relates to power structures and the politics of identity in an Australian context. The discussion of these politics will be supported by a textual analysis of the final chapter of the Kate Grenville novel Joan Makes History which examined women’s everyday roles in the making of that culture. The novel was written in the bicentennial year to commemorate 200 years of Australian culture (with more than a passing nod to the previous 40,000 years) and is replete with clues for interpreting many of the social identities in the Australian landscape. The final chapter of the book brings many of these identities together. In conclusion, the essay will remark on why the productive nature of culture and identity deserves to be studied.

One way of studying culture identity is through the science of anthropology. Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has a strong emphasis on cultural relativism which is the principle that societies’ beliefs and activities make sense in terms of their own culture. Clifford Geertz was an American anthropologist who offered a new framework for cultural analysis. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz stated that culture is not a function of behaviour but rather a set of controls that govern behaviour. These controls, which he likened to computer programming rules, are a key ingredient in the moulding of human nature. According to Geertz, we finish ourselves through culture. The product of this finishing school is the sum of our ideas, values, acts and emotions. Culture sits at the core of our very humanity. This means that a wide variety of objects can be analysed as cultural artefacts.

Robert Darnton was strongly influenced by this form of analysis and he describes Geertz’s study of culture as “history in the ethnographical vein”. In The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French cultural history, he used Geertz’s approach to study life in France prior to the Revolution. He worked with that society’s everyday activities (lists, jokes, songs, police notes) to unlock their cultural secrets. By examining a joke he does not “get”, such as why French peasants thought it hilarious to kill cats, he opens a window on the mindset of the Ancien RĂ©gime. Darnton also charted the evolution of the wholesome fairytales of the Brothers Grimm back to the grim French peasant stories they were based on. Darnton argues that the peasants found their macabre fairy tales “good to think with”. The French tales and jokes offered lessons on the unending toil and Hobbesian brutalities of everyday life at the time. When it comes to culture there is no source material that is inconsequential.

Jennifer Craik placed an Australian context around finding consequence in the everyday. Craik observed that the true self does not exist and that we are instead, highly trained bodies performing particular roles for specific occasions. In her text The cultural politics of the Queensland house Craik argued that the Queenslander home is critical in the development of a regional identity. Craik states that the home and its occupants influence each other. The house is shaped by the lifestyle compromises of those who live there while the house imposes a financial discipline on the family. Craik goes on to argue that the design of the Queenslander home itself reflects Victorian era gender politics by physically confining women in the private realms where they could not influence public spheres of engagement. The house is the arena where the politics of everyday life are carried out. And within the house, it is the kitchen that is now the dominant room within the home. But the occupants of the kitchen have become increasingly isolated due to its usual position at the back of the house. In Craik’s analysis of the home, culture can be understood as an active force that shows how the human self is the product of culture. It is also dynamic and evolving. The breaking-down of the traditional role of women has redefined domestic politics with home labour now seen as chores rather than what Craik called a crucial bio-political agency.

Newspapers may still be counted as an example of a crucial bio-political agency. The daily reading of newspapers constitute a mass ceremony of almost simultaneous consumption. Newspapers permit the conduct of public debate on a national scale. The French Revolutionary-era journalist J-P. Brissot was an early visionary who saw the potential of that power and said “one can teach the same truth at the same moment to millions of men”. It was part of a perfectioning of the political machine where even decimal clocks would bear witness to the Revolution. The French were among the first to confront the paradox of freedom of the press under a democratic system. Australia is still grappling with this paradox today in the shape of defamation laws, limited ownership and cross media-rules. These are Geertz’s control mechanisms that govern the behaviour of newspapers. But these laws are fairly static identities compared to the ephemeral form of the newspaper itself. Newspapers by their very ordinariness and ubiquity constitute an example of a technological habitus of a nation. The habitus is the techniques, practices and ‘environment’ in which it is possible to be and feel ‘at home’. In the newspaper, nations are imaged in four different forms of stories. There can be stories about people, stories about their geography, stories about their history, and stories about their conflicts. The idea of a contested nation is at the core of media treatment of such news items as the Cronulla riots of December 2005. The division of people into simplistic tribes called “Australians” and “Lebanese” is an example of what Mercer called the articulation of the problematic into our rich cultural lives. In Cronulla, that “problematic” was nationalism.

Sylvia Lawson understood how a genie like nationalism could escape from the bottle. She described nationalism as a psychic and social reality, gift and burden, culture saturating nature. Sport can be seen as a psychic reality and a nationalistic vehicle through which culture saturates our nature. Sport has a crucially important function in Australian culture and nowhere is the nationalism of Australian sport more pronounced then during the Olympic Games. This competition is open to nation states only. And so the Olympics lend legitimacy to the nation state as the proper unit of cultural as well as political and economic sovereignty and organisation in the world. Greenfield and Williams also argue that sport is inextricably linked with political elements and is the venue for ongoing negotiation of social power between individuals and between nations. Among the great myths that sport produces is that of natural justice; a level playing ground where competitors and indeed nations can supposedly gain a clear and truthful ranking. The Australian media obsession with the ranking of the Olympic medal tally is an example of how these political elements are engaged in the national habitus.

The hosting of the Games in Sydney 2000 was a chance to epitomise many of these cultural aspects of sport. The marginal nation of Australia would become central to an international spectacle. The political planning for the event was well-known enough in 1998 to be satirised in the ABC show The Games. This was how many Australians learned to think about the Olympics. As the event drew closer, the Torch Relay took centre stage. John Sinclair examines that phenomenon in his essay More than an old flame. Taking his cue from Darnton, he examined the history of the relay and finds its beginning in that most politically charged of Games: Berlin, 1936. Sinclair identifies the Torch Relay as, what Hobsbawm called, an “invented tradition”. Eric Hobsbawm had defined invented traditions to mean responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations. Thus Sinclair saw the Nazi era Torch Relay as a reference to separate ancient Greek traditions involving flame lighting and torch races.

Despite its fascist beginnings, the Torch Relay became a successful tradition. In each of the following Games, the host country lent its own cultural slant to the tradition. The nation-state basis of the Olympics allows countries to feed off each other to define themselves in cultural terms. For Sydney 2000, this meant ensuring the Games had a national and inclusive focus and one which could embrace the multitude of social and cultural differences that exist in Australia. Media commentators rushed to define themes of reconciliation and redemption in the Relay. The arrival of the flame in Australia gave the Relay immediacy and saliency in terms of news value. Local newspapers along the route could connote a wide range of associated meanings and local references into their coverage of the event. The Relay was a community event and the media followed the flame, and the stories associated with it, across the country. It was, as the mayor of Mount Isa told the Courier-Mail, “a catalyst to get the energy flowing in everyone” (Courier-Mail 8 June 2000). The Torch Relay created a sense of time, place and character as well as being a journey.

That journey ended at the Sydney Olympic stadium. The lighting of the cauldron in the stadium brought an important sense of closure of the Relay event. The identity of who would light the flame during the Opening Ceremony was a closely guarded secret until it happened. The choice of a female Aborigine to light the flame was a culmination of the inclusive of the entire event. And if mythology is the sense of the reconciling socially disruptive contradictions, then this was most clearly brought out in the drama of Cathy Freeman’s subsequent 400 metres victory ten days later. In a matter of 49 seconds, she was able to conjure up great themes of gender, race and politics. It was a “triumph of social justice, a moment of national reconciliation, and….an unspoken moment of chagrin for the (absent) prime minister”. Immediately the cudgels of her identity were taken up by vested interests claiming her victory in their name. The media hailed her as “our golden girl.” This interpellation claimed possession of her in the name of often conflicting views depending on the politics and the ethnicity of who was making the claim.

And just as “our Cathy” was at the centre of cultural conflict, so was “our Queen”. In the years leading up to the Sydney Games, many argued that the event should be opened by an Australian Head of State. But Elizabeth, Queen of Australia remains obstinately a British monarch. In 1996 Sydney Games bid chief Bruce Baird called for a trifecta of “an Australian republic with a new flag and a new anthem” (SMH 14 August 1996). Baird pointed out that the British IOC delegate Princess Anne had voted for Manchester to hold the 2000 Summer Olympics and only switched her vote to Sydney after her preferred choice was eliminated. Baird saw this as a “coming of age” crisis of Australian identity. The ambiguous position of our head of state was also explored by Amanda Lowrey in "Australia Day 1994". Lowrey described the 1990s as “the interregnum between the Commonwealth of Australia and the Republic of Australia. Although the interregnum has lasted longer than Lohrey anticipated, the concept still holds as a descriptor of the ambiguous state of Australia’s imagined political identity. Lohrey questioned whether Prince Charles attended the 1994 Australia Day celebration in Sydney as a representative of the Queen of Australia or as an ambassador for Britain. When Lohrey has the chance to see him at the ceremony, she notes he clearly has the “unmistakable detachment of the observer”. It is not until the drama of the fake shooting does he engage his “subjects” and even then it is not as the once and future King of Australia he garners their sympathy but rather as the novelty value of “he-who-almost-might-have-been-assassinated on Australia Day”.

Australia Day celebrates a sense of what may be described as “national time”. But its specific sense of past means that Aboriginals see Australia Day not as a celebration but as a day of invasion. In Identity Crisis, Colin Mercer argues that the most resilient form of political identity is ethnicity. He sees the three factors that most affect this identity are religious practices, daily rituals and language. European settlers showed little interest or understanding of any of these factors when it came to dealing with Aboriginals. Mercer argued elsewhere that European culture was incommensurable with the ideas of the person, the land and the connective logic of events which are operational in Aboriginal communities.

Joan Grenville grappled with the connective logic of the events of European and Aboriginal cultural history in "Joan Makes History". The book was commissioned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the First Landing on January 26, 1788. Joan’s “History” is a rewriting of the dominant Australian narratives of economic success, justice, Aboriginality and women. Narratives are classified into types called genres. Grenville uses the genre of fiction in order to reconstruct a definition of national identity. The text examines the nation through the prism of everyday life. The final chapter of the book attempts to segue many of the various cultural themes of time, place and lifestyle that are expounded throughout the work.

The final chapter of Joan Makes History is told in the form of reminiscences about photographs. Photographs are among Geertz’s plans, recipes and instructions that mould human behaviour. They are also a visual form of history that are good to think with. The chapter is a narrative, something which tells a story. The narrative is the combination of two elements. The first element of any narrative is the story itself, a series of events in chronological order. The second element is the narration, the telling of that story. In the text the story is about the photographs. The voice of the text is the narrator. Joan is that voice. We know it is her voice from the first statement of the chapter when Joan interpellates the reader to examine the photographs with her: “Here is our Madge”. The photographs do not necessarily relate to each other but they do follow each other in time. It is thus a minimal story in the Rimmon-Kennan sense rather than the classical story structure in a Gerald Prince sense. Although there is not necessarily inversion of the events of the story, they do occur in the same represented world. That represented world is a chronological account of the habitus of Joan and her family. Joan is part of the fictional world so she is a restricted narrator. She addresses her story to an implied ideal reader of the text who, although is not part of the story, is there with her as she goes through the photographs. This positions the actual reader to form a close and trusting relationship to the narrator.

This trusting relationship has been built up through all the previous chapters. It is achieved through the process of characterisation which can be defined as the construction and function of characters to produce meaning in the text. Joan is a believable guide through consistent character traiting. Her photo album offers many clues to her social identity. There is the search for a link with “great moments in history” at Captain Cook’s landing spot and his transported English cottage. The text gradually moves from the national time of public sphere to the more intimate identities of the private sphere. So we follow Madge on the beach, to Madge in the vegetable garden, Madge in her grandmother’s fur stole, and finally a picture of the family together in front of the house on the day Madge leaves home. Through the story of these photographs, Joan weaves a tapestry of nostalgia, of lives lived, of tears cried, and of history made. There is an element of wistfulness about the narrative because the stories lead to an inevitable scenario where a washed-up Joan ends up “where the tide of life had been, and had passed”.

Grenville’s cultural tour takes us back to the “birthplace of the nation” where what her husband Duncan called “our history started”. This was the start of European history, the place where the “first buckled foot had stepped”. The buckle alludes to the shoeless Aboriginals already present but also reminds us of the barefoot Joan that swam ashore ahead of the First Fleet. In the photo taken here, Madge’s friend Ellen’s eyes wander away from the camera at the vital moment. This is no accident. Ellen literally misses history. Her story is one of the poverty of “potato and bread” and the strap from her father. Ellen’s father is a “fierce boilermaker’s-riveter’s-mate”, with each hyphen taking him further away from power, a power he regains by the vicious beatings he inflicts on his daughter. This flat characterisation encourages the reader to dislike him and his draconian patriarchal behaviour.

But reader does like the rounded and honest Joan, the dispassionate observer of history. She eavesdrops on her daughter’s games while “pretending to hang out a sheet”. There is delicious irony at work in this example of what Rimmon-Kennan called the indirect presentation of a habitual trait. That trait is Joan’s nosiness. Joan is not pretending at all; she is hanging out a sheet. This is how she makes “history” as a wife, a mother and a homemaker. But her restless curiosity allows her to use the sheet-hanging excuse to spy on her daughter’s games. The beach photo showed how a pre-pubescent Madge was dimly aware of the cultural taboo of showing her nipples to the Brownie camera. It is a clash between boundaries of behaviour acceptable in private and public spheres. The Australian invented tradition of a visit to the beach is already firmly established. There is a “long cranky drive home with the thousand of other Humbers”. The biblical allusion of the “fall from innocence” dovetails with the Eden metaphor of Joan’s veggie garden where Madge is snapped with her newly planted carrots. The scene also recalls the Scene Four Joan who plants her seed (neatly wedged between the chapters of the conception and the birth of the 20th century Joan) as a symbol of hope and the future. Madge’s carrots die but she herself is full of life. Joan is again surreptitiously a “proud, prying mother” watching the vibrancy of her daughter.

The final photo is the most poignant of all. The changing of the guard is noted by the fact that the photo was taken by Madge’s camera and she was able to work out the automatic option that her father had never worked out. It was her last day at home and the things she has packed are what Geertz called “a traffic in significant symbols”. The teddy bear, a photograph of Transylvania, a Sydney Harbour Bridge calendar and a Christmas card from a lover all contribute to Madge’s sense of place, character and lifestyle. The final words of the chapter beautifully encapsulate the sounds of the everyday. There is the “humming of insects in the grass, a rooster crowing and parents sighing". They sigh in desperation at the way life had suddenly passed them by. In Grenville’s topographical nation, it is an icon of ordinariness.

In Grenville’s fictional world, culture is active and diverse and imposes meaning on experience. It is also ordinary. Geertz and Darnton prescribed the path to a more holistic understanding of everyday culture. Resources such as newspapers, the Olympics and the Republican debate show how these cultural connections are made in an Australian context. People navigate their way through a multiplicity of cultural modes and each mode informs identity as well as informing each other. We may take these modes for granted, but they are no less important for it. Culture is ever-changing and productive. It therefore merits continual vigilance and analysis.

1 comment:

horsecrazygal said...

This is a very interesting account of the book Joan Makes Hstory.I read the book and was amazed at how Grenville wrote a discourse of gender in Australian history.
Have you read R. Darntons's The Great Cat Massare. Both Darnton and Geertz are clever in their anthroplogical viewpoints.