Altitude: an e-journal of emerging humanities work

December 2, 2004

Postmodernity and September 11 2001 – Life imitating art? Art pre-empting Life? An Australian Perspective

Filed under: Volume 4: Justice and the Global (2004) — Tags: , — Clifton Evers @ 1:22 am

by Christine Nicholls, Altitude, Volume 4, Article 1, 2004.

Reflecting on the events of September 11 2001, I, like many others, was left with a strong sense of déjà vu. This does not betoken any prophetic gift on my part – far from it. As it happens, many of the occurrences of that day and the subsequent fall out had been pre-empted visually by Hollywood movies (mostly B-grade), especially those that fall into the aptly named genre ‘disaster movies’. Debord1 has noted that our social relations are mediated through images and on no occasion was this more apparent than on September 11 2001, where the porous relationship between image and reality became obvious via the presentation of an act of terrorism as a ratings-pushing television spectacle.

The repetitive broadcasting of the September 11 footage on all Australian television stations day in, day out (sometimes in fact, hour in, hour out) in the period immediately following September 11 2001 reinforced the impression that the disaster constituted its own self-referential loop. This occurred to the point that the repetitious footage could almost be read as the kind of saturation advertising that commonly precedes forthcoming blockbuster movie. The fact that in Australia we are so geographically distant from the US, while at the same time such avid consumers of its televisual culture, served to reinforce the impression that the basis of this event had less connection to documentary reality than it did to the movie industry. In other words, the main external referent for September 11 2001, at least as visual spectacle, seemed not to be ‘the real’ or ‘reality’ but the movies, specifically Hollywood movies. In a bizarre inversion of what is supposed to be the norm, simulacra of reality, at least in some respects, became the major referent for the real in this case.

Some of the films prefiguring the tragic events of 9/11 reflected so-called ‘natural’ disasters but the more recent ones (especially aircraft disasters brought about by some human failing) have been increasingly presenting human-engineered disasters as the spectacle-de-jour and chief entertainment. The unfurling events of September 11 in which the crisis was presented in the most graphic of tele-visual terms – as the ultimate disaster movie – showed life uncannily imitating art, rather than vice versa, which is how it is supposed to be, in theory.



July 2, 2004

Mambo Justice: An Unnatural Alliance?

Filed under: Volume 4: Justice and the Global (2004) — Tags: , — Clifton Evers @ 1:17 am

by Susie Khamis, Altitude, Volume 4, Article 2, 2004.

When the Dalai Lama tours the United States, his public appearances are staged with the sort of fanfare that is generally reserved for stars of the screen. Indeed, when the Dalai Lama tours the United States, he is often photographed with stars of the screen. Hollywood celebrities like Richard Gere have famously befriended the charismatic leader, while others like Brad Pitt and the Beastie Boys have been similarly vocal in their support. At one Los Angeles function in 2000, Sharon Stone introduced the Dalai Lama as “the hardest working man in spirituality.” Even high-profile fashion designer Anna Sui was so moved by the Dalai Lama and the struggle of the Tibetan people that, as Naomi Klein writes in No Logo, ‘she made an entire line of banana-print bikini tops and surfer shorts inspired by the Chinese occupation’ (85).

Such support for the Tibetan people is often projected almost exclusively onto His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama. Whether addressing heads of state or undergraduate students, the author of Ethics for the New Millennium has become a popular and accessible guru for the English-speaking world. In terms of media effect, the combined wattage of this East/West alliance is little short of spectacular. If nothing else, though, these cross-cultural encounters illustrate the degree to which seemingly disparate forces collide and coalesce in contemporary popular culture. In other words, politics and spirituality are no longer debased by what was once considered tabloid triviality. All things being equal, one might assume that such glamorous company would have actually helped the Dalai Lama’s cause, translating into real benefits for the Tibetan people. However, according to Patrick French, a former director of the Free Tibet Campaign, the degree to which the Dalai Lama’s celebrity status has actually furthered the Tibetan plight is questionable. If anything, he argues, the celebrity glow may in fact imply material gains and political favour where none exist. Writing earlier this year in The New York Times, French warned sympathetic readers of becoming prematurely complacent: ‘US enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama is not the same as genuine political support for Tibet. No US government will place sympathy for Tibetans above US strategic and economic interests.’ (13)


Playing Devil’s Advocate: Reflecting on Samantha Power’s ‘A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide’

Filed under: Volume 4: Justice and the Global (2004) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 1:12 am

by Patrick Allington, Altitude, Volume 4, Article 3, 2004.

Even after the violent political and ideological excesses of the twentieth century, even in an era of multiculturalism following successive waves of migration, relatively few of us in the western world of 2004 have personally endured policies and practices of genocide. We might think of Samantha Power’s dense, disturbing book, ‘A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, as a conduit. The horrifying case studies she recounts inform us about the callousness and the breadth of certain recent crimes against humanity, and cast at least a dim light on the dark realities endured by humans living in war-torn communities. Power also reminds us that western governments respond (or do not respond) to such events via the continually evolving and faltering, sometimes fatuous but sometimes effective, global geopolitical system. This global geopolitical system can itself contribute to future unrest: when the US, for its own strategic and economic reasons, supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war it obviously did not plan to fight two Gulf Wars and to commence a messy occupation of Iraq; when the US supported the Taliban following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan it did not expect to later fight a war against terrorism.

‘A Problem From Hell’ is part investigative journalism and part scholarly and passionately argued interpretation of Power’s own research, based on a political position that itself informs the direction of that research. After discussing the alleged Armenian genocide in Turkey (in 1915, before the word ‘genocide’ existed) and the emergence of the legal concept of genocide following the Holocaust, she summarises subsequent examples of what she determines to be genocide in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Taken in isolation (and whether or not readers choose to accept Power’s determinations of genocide), each of these historical studies is appalling. The importance of presenting an accessible summary of some of the worst mass acts of violence of last century, for many of us either forgotten, dimly remembered or never known, cannot be overstated. But the greater value of ‘A Problem From Hell’ is in its comparative, contextual approach. Power makes clear that crimes against humanity are neither isolated nor date to a previous, less civil age; by the time she discusses events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the legacy of nearly a century of accumulating genocides weighs heavily on the text, and the reader.

Power argues that US administrations have sometimes responded ineffectively to genocide, sometimes with indifference, by choosing to over-privilege dual tenets: first, that national sovereignty is inviolable, and second, and perhaps more significantly, that US responses to the activities of other nations should proceed on a basis consistent with the US’ ‘national interest’. In contrast, Power argues that America has a moral obligation to prevent or arrest genocide but, beyond a moral response, she makes the case that policymakers and citizens should regard preventing genocide as itself serving the US national interest.

‘A Problem From Hell’ won Power the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction 2003, and it won and was short listed for a number of other important awards. It has been widely and mostly positively reviewed, many critics suggesting that it should be a standard text in its field, some even implying that it could become an influential part of the political and moral landscape it itself critiques. Power tackles a most difficult subject; she reaches nuanced conclusions while remaining, in the best sense, argumentative. But even as we admire ‘A Problem From Hell’, and even as Power’s narrative shocks us, we might release ourselves from considering the many complexities that she does not resolve. This concerned, informed passivity might even manifest in us the belief that reading (or even owning) ‘A Problem From Hell’ itself could represent a substantial personal-political reaction.

Power eschews the facade of neutrality and she at least points towards the relevance of the distance between lives of hardship and lives of privilege. But if we appropriate her concerns and the personal questioning that must have led her to her conclusions, we might avoid subjecting ourselves to similar scrutiny. ‘A Problem From Hell’ is a much more important book when it is placed in its wider context, which is not only the history of twentieth-century genocides and western responses to those genocides, but also the broader history of international relations and the theory and practice of modern diplomacy. This might include, for example, focusing more precisely on what core US priorities have been seen since World War Two, noting especially the various stages of the Cold War and the central importance of the US’ dealings with the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. It might also include trying to recognise how we in the west, not directly involved in or associated with policy framers and decision makers, connect with and impact on the elusive geopolitical system that operates on our behalf.

In this context we need to be able to disconnect Power’s narrative of events from her conclusions and prescriptions, which remain open to interpretation and will be accessible to disagreeing protagonists in future debates. Consider Power’s argument that genocide prevention should be seen as serving the national interest:

If it was difficult before September 11 to get US decision-makers to see the long-term costs of allowing genocide, it will be even harder today when US security needs are so acute and visible. But security for Americans at home and abroad is contingent on international stability, and there is perhaps no greater source of havoc than a group of well-armed extremists bent on wiping out a people on ethnic, national, or religious grounds.

Recalling that ‘A Problem From Hell’ was first published in 2002, I might use this quote to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. Or, by referring to Power’s description of earlier US support for Iraq, which the US deemed to be in its national interest, I might label the invasion a cynical attempt by the US to avoid its role in Saddam Hussein’s reign, and I might choose to doubt whether the occupation is now serving the US national interest, even in purely strategic terms.

My point is not to criticise Power for failing to be definitive, but to note that ‘A Problem From Hell’ is a book of dissent and that its narrative partly focuses on dissenters, inside and outside the system. But policymakers and the general public often ignore or dismiss dissenters, and employ their ‘unreasonableness’ to reinforce official positions. Dissenters might also, simply, be wrong. They might also act as a conscience by proxy, allowing us to laud their courage and respect their principles and give thanks that such people exist.

In the context of the problems and possibilities of dissent, consider Power’s discussion of the evolution of the legal concept of genocide. She recounts the efforts of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, lawyer and emigrant to the US who lost many family members in the Holocaust. Lemkin conducted a relentless crusade in the newly created UN to codify a specific type of crime, which he named genocide, and which reflected crimes committed against people because of their membership of a specific group. His long struggle led eventually (1951) to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of which Article II states:

… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Power emphasises the need to distinguish between this legal definition of genocide and the word’s more colloquial use, which tends to evoke the scope and severity of the Holocaust. This is not a mere question of semantics, and neither should the need for precision imply that Article II cannot also be a ‘living’ definition, itself subject to debate and precedent. But if the word genocide is to have any function in public discourse — whether we are discussing Tutsis in Rwanda or indigenous Australians or Muslims in Bosnia — users of the term must state plainly what they are alleging. If we use the term loosely, we should not be surprised by any resulting dissonance, given that, for example, the full definition of genocide in the Oxford is, ‘The deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group.’

None of this is simple. Power emphasises repeatedly the need for precision, and in doing so she effectively demonstrates that the legal use of the Genocide Convention has been underemployed as a unilateral or multilateral means of challenging the perpetrators of genocide. But the need for precision can also aid obfuscation. Power is at her most scathing when recounting the efforts of spokespeople for various US administrations to twist their language so as to avoid publicly referring to genocide. For example, she quotes from this 1994 confidential memo from then Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the question of Rwanda:

The delegation is authorized to agree to a resolution that states that ‘acts of genocide’ have occurred in Rwanda or that ‘genocide has occurred in Rwanda’. Other formulations that suggest that some, but not all of the killings in Rwanda are genocide … e.g., ‘genocide is taking place in Rwanda’ — are authorized. Delegation is not authorized to agree to the characterization of any specific incident as genocide or to agree to any formulation that indicates that all killings in Rwanda are genocide. (362)

Christopher’s primary intention, it seems, was to ensure that injudicious public use of language did not compromise policies regarding Rwanda. Still, this leads to a broader question, and one acknowledged by Power: when the carnage of innocent people is occurring, should the onus be on defining whether or not that violence constitutes genocide? Does such a determination alter death tolls or refugee numbers or the amount of individual and collective grief and hardship? Regarding Iraqi actions against its Kurdish population, Power considers the response of Amnesty International:

Whatever its internal skepticism about Kurdish claims, instead of publicly casting doubts on refugee reports, the organization did something no non-governmental group had ever done: It appealed directly to the UN Security Council to act immediately to stop the slaughter of Kurdish civilians. It made what was then a radical, new argument. When a state committed massacres inside its borders, the killings constituted ‘a threat to international peace and security’ and thus, according to the UN charter, became the responsibility of the Security Council. The organization did not invoke the genocide convention. It argued only what it could prove definitively. Researchers did not want a debate over the aptness of the genocide label to distract policymakers from crimes that were undeniable. (215)

Again, there is no simple conclusion. We can invoke the Genocide Convention and use it as a means of both ceasing bloodshed and punishing perpetrators: it can define the crime and legitimate the response. But this requires the willingness of states to choose to use the convention as this type of tool. And that depends, it appears, on whether such use falls within a state’s national interest.

Former Australian diplomat, Richard Woolcott, suggests,

The definition of Australia’s national interest must be the starting point of policy formulation. This will always be a combination of our economic and trade interests, our geopolitical and strategic concerns, and the extent to which our interests are served — and not eroded — by participating in multilateralism and what has been called ‘good international citizenship’ activities. Despite the seminal changes of the last decade, one thing has remained constant: Australia’s basic objectives are to preserve itself from attack or the threat of attack and to advance the economic and social well-being of all its citizens.

I do not quote Woolcott in order to locate him amongst the many US diplomats and politicians criticised by Power. Neither do I argue that his definition is conclusive (or, for that matter, that this one quote reflects even his definitive word) but it is, I suggest, a reasonable summary of the way our government interacts with the world on our behalf. And though it probably serves us reasonably well and reasonably honourably a fair amount of the time, it is also utterly vague: we can argue that almost anything is in the national interest. We cannot express surprise, and we cannot deflect all blame onto our policymakers when, for instance, our national interests and our moral obligations do not coincide, leading to a practical response that is at once convoluted and inflexible and, further, that policymakers are disinclined to expose for all to see. Neither should we — even when we are reading a book about US responses to genocide, and whether we believe that Australia is America’s ally, co-sheriff or far-flung dependency — fall for the tempting, satisfying option of damning the Yanks and hoping, abstractly, that they might do better next time.

Many difficult and disturbing questions remain for us, not the least of which is whether we are prepared for the realities and the complexities that flow from wanting to bridge the gap between how the geopolitical world works and how we hope it might work. Consider Samantha Power’s call to dissent, made in the final paragraph of her book:

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ After a century of doing so little to prevent, suppress and punish genocide, Americans must join and thereby legitimate the ranks of the unreasonable.

Though it is probably not her primary intent, Power’s book exposes the limitations of the media acting as the dominant conduit between citizens and those engaged in enacting and preserving both foreign policy and the systems and rules that drive foreign policy. Unlike Power, who served as a newspaper correspondent in Bosnia, many of her readers will not have personally witnessed genocide, except perhaps in history classes or via Hollywood or maybe at a commemorative museum at a significant location such as Auschwitz in Poland or S-21 in Cambodia. Power states,

Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid.'(xvii)

This challenge of imagining crimes against humanity, whether or not we declare them genocidal, is different for most of us than it is for Power, who has at least glimpsed the graphic reality of perpetrators targeting and killing innocent people because of who they are. The fact that genocide is almost inconceivable to our imagination should hardly surprise us. But to hide behind our remoteness is to deliberately suppress our imagination: not being able to believe is different to not wanting to know. As Power makes clear, the twentieth century, including the late twentieth century, was awash with politically motivated violence. To be required to imagine such violence, rather than to draw on personal experience, is a blessing with, unavoidably, political ramifications. In the meantime, those of us who might feel distant from the decisions (and the deflections) of our political and diplomatic representatives, and who might feel helpless in the face of a newspaper headline announcing political murders in some distant country, might also have legitimate doubts that we possess enough information to be sure of our reaction. Even if we accept that our leaders are telling the truth, are they telling us everything? Is the media? Doubting these sources is a legitimate part of attempting to inform ourselves; but while doubts fester, governments do react and respond, and they do so in our name.

Consider again Christopher, the US Secretary of State from 1993-1997, who had a face too woefully morose to be a politician in the age of television. When Christopher resigned from his position (not, in all likelihood, because of his face) President Bill Clinton inflicted on him a hug of thanks. If I remember correctly — I think I do, but it was a momentary image on the seven o’clock news — Christopher turned granite-like with embarrassment. Clinton whispered in his ear, or so I now choose to imagine, ‘It’s about the cameras, stupid: hug me back.’

Does Warren Christopher’s face matter? Or, more correctly, does it matter what I remember about his face or, more correctly still, how I now choose to caricature him? Does it matter what I imagine Clinton said to him? Do I gain anything useful, and am I fair to Christopher, by extrapolating that a sour face, fixed in place by overwork and over worry (or perhaps because the wind changed) reflects a mind lacking dexterity and vibrancy?

Of course, these questions should be as inconsequential as whether Christopher prefers Coke or Pepsi (or, heaven forbid, neither). But to recognise that so much media-dominated politics is facile does not enable me to avoid the reality that I rely on the media for the vast majority of the information I gather in order to have a world view that I can, myself, take seriously. Warren Christopher’s face is significant to me — for you it might be Henry Kissinger’s accent or Deng Xiao Ping’s height or Margaret Thatcher’s handbags — because I create my worldview through a combination of information, interpretation and imagination.

The last of these — imagination — is troublesome but it is a recurring theme in discussions about war and about genocide. As Power, who in Bosnia witnessed terrible scenes but still could not believe subsequent events, suggests, ‘Before it begins, genocide is not easy to wrap one’s mind around. A genocidal regime’s intent to destroy a group is so hideous and the scale of its atrocities so enormous that outsiders who know enough to forecast brutality can rarely bring themselves to imagine genocide’ (95). Or as the historian Inga Clendinnen wrote to help explain the aim of her book, Reading the Holocaust (1998): ‘I want to dispel the ‘Gorgon effect’ — the sickening of the imagination and curiosity and the draining of the will which afflicts so many of us when we try to look squarely at the persons and processes implicated in the Holocaust.’ Or as President George W. Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address: ‘Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained. Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans — this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known.’ Or as Richard Brookhiser argued in his March 2003 assessment of George W. Bush: ‘The unknown quality is imagination — the imagination to foresee consequences, the imagination to be a wartime President.’

The primary connection to genocide for those of us blessed by ignorance — in other words, the connection that gives our imagination a starting point — is the media. Sound bites are, it should hardly be necessary to repeat, simplistic and unreliable. Certain that no half hour explanation is ever going to be recounted on the six o’clock news, politicians employ language that amounts to marketing, not merely in the content of the message but in the ‘selling’ of the sound bite to journalists, who can only ‘buy’ so many quotes for any given bulletin. No government spokesperson is ever going to explain an actual government position, with all its complexities and possibilities and pitfalls, on a television programme, or, for that matter, at a news conference. The function of a sound bite is to summarise, to appease, to deflect, to market in wildly simplified ways, a policy or action; if this affronts us as receivers of sound bites — actually affronts us, as opposed to allowing us the comfort of feeling affronted — we have a responsibility, and in countries such as the US and Australia we have the right and the opportunity, to reject the legitimacy and primacy of this mode of communication. Unless, that is, we need and want our representatives to make decisions we ourselves would not make and that we ourselves do not condone.

In 1993, as Power recounts, Christopher said this about the unfolding violence in Bosnia: The hatred between all three groups … is almost unbelievable. It’s almost terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell. And I think that the United States is doing all we can to try to deal with that problem.’ Christopher managed to summarise considerable detail, and to signpost his position, in the short quote. When he said the ‘hatred’ existed amongst all combatants, he was also saying that he did not want, as a matter of policy, to hold the Serbs solely responsible; he certainly was reluctant to accuse them of genocide. When he said the hatred was ‘centuries old’ he offered historical context and so absolved modern participants, and the modern geopolitical system, from direct responsibility. When he said that the US was ‘doing all we can’, he absolved his government of the need, indeed the capacity, to do more; after all, if a problem comes from hell, the logical response is to pray.

Review of Mahmood Monshipouri, Neil Engelhart, Andrew Nathan and Kavita Philip. ‘Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalisation. M.E Sharpe, 2003.

Filed under: Volume 4: Justice and the Global (2004) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 12:57 am

By Jim Ife, Altitude, Volume 4, Review 2, 2004.

The field of human rights is now a large one in the academic publishing world. Like the present volume, most of the recent editions address the issues of universality and cross-cultural dialogue, especially within the context of globalisation. Indeed, one criticism I would make of the human rights literature is that because it has concentrated so much on this (admittedly very important) area, it has dealt inadequately with other significant theoretical issues. I would welcome more focus on, for example, the relationship between rights and responsibilities, rather than additions to the already substantial literature on cultural issues and universalism. Does this collection, then, have anything new to say?

The other question raised by this book, on reading the list of contributors, is how can a collection where all the authors are based in the USA (though they do have differing cultural backgrounds) possibly reflect the multiplicity of voices one would ideally wish for in a book on this topic. Is it just another exercise in so-called ‘American academic imperialism’, where even topics such as universalism, cultural difference and international human rights are analysed from a largely American perspective for the benefit of the (presumably grateful) rest of the world?

These were the (perhaps cynical) questions with which I approached Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalisation, and I am pleased to say that I was reassured on both counts. This collection does have some important things to say, and it does reach beyond a specifically American worldview.

The two key themes of the collection are indicated in the title of the book. The idea of human rights as constructed is important throughout the volume, and a welcome change from the surprising number of writers who seem to regard human rights in a more positivistic sense. Thus the focus is more on who does the constructing, how rights are constructed, and how they are negotiated when conflicts (often culturally determined) arise, than on human rights as existing naturally in some way, or as handed down in tablets of stone from the holy mountain of the UN. This leads to a particular concern with dialogue as providing a model for the construction and reconstruction of human rights: the emphasis is on human rights as dynamic, diverse and an arena for debate.

The other key theme is globalisation. It is clear that any discussion of human rights in a culturally diverse context must take account not only of differences between nation states and between traditional cultures, but also the forces of globalisation that render many of these differences less relevant (ironically at the very time that their significance is being rediscovered). The treatment of globalisation in the introduction – and this is carried forward in some of the subsequent chapters, most notably the chapters in Part II – is more sophisticated and analytical than one often finds in works of this type.

These two themes, of construction and globalisation, give the book its shape, and provide a coherence which is often missing in edited collections. This does not mean to say that all the authors agree with each other. The emphasis on dialogue, however, gives a constructive framing to these differences.

The book is divided into three parts. The volume begins with a substantial introduction, and ends with a brief conclusion, each of which is written jointly by the four editors. The introduction is particularly valuable, identifying important themes to be dealt with in subsequent chapters, and is in itself a useful reference point for much of the discussion. I did wish for a more substantial conclusion, however. Between the introduction and the conclusion are twelve chapters by different authors, grouped into three parts, each of four chapters. Part I is ‘The Struggle to Control the Human Rights Regime’, Part II is ‘The Dynamics and Counter-Dynamics of Globalisation’, and Part III is ‘Setting the Terms of Debate: Pursuing Global Consensus’. The four chapters in Part I outline a number of major issues, including gender, environment and intellectual property, as well as the familiar issues of cultural difference, universalism and the crisis of the state. The chapters in Part II discuss particular cultural contexts, though of the four chapters, two deal with China and a third with Hong Kong; one would ideally have wished for a broader range of cultural contexts. The other chapter discusses Iran, but the section as a whole could have benefited from more diversity. Part III was for me the best part of the book: four chapters that, from different perspectives, seek to look forward. Joanne Bauer’s and Charles Lockhart’s chapters identify challenges and obstacles, the latter being the more pessimistic (or at least sceptical) in identifying systemic obstacles embedded in different national and cultural traditions and histories, and how these lead to differing and competing understandings of the human rights agenda. The next two chapters, however, are more hopeful, and end the book on an optimistic note. Chenyang Li’s chapter discusses the nature of moral argument and moral persuasion as the central task of promoting human rights, while the final chapter by John Downey, written from a theological perspective, seeks to find a common starting point for human rights in the experience of and reaction to human suffering.

Overall, this book is a useful addition to human rights literature, and its consistent emphasis on the construction of rights, and the context of globalisation, give it a particular relevance and coherence that similar collections often lack.

Review of Bartholomew Dean and Jerome Levi (eds). ‘At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights and Postcolonial States’. University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Filed under: Volume 4: Justice and the Global (2004) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 12:52 am

by Barry Judd, Altitude, Volume 4, Review 2, 2004.

There are an estimated 370 million Indigenous people in more than 70 countries worldwide. At the Risk of Being Heard reminds us that Indigenous peoples are the inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures which, despite their great diversity, have become fused in a world wide movement to survive against external interference by non-Indigenous people, corporations and governments. Concerned with relationships between Indigenous identity and strategies for effective political struggle, At the Risk of Being Heard surveys the plight of Indigenous people in Siberia, Southern Africa, Mexico, Peruvian Amazonia, South East Asia and Australia. In each of these locales, the authors describe how Indigenous people continue to struggle for an active place within the non-Indigenous nation-states in which they now live, while at the same time retaining their own cultural practices.

The book demonstrates that, increasingly, Indigenous positions have been manifest around the concept of nationalism. The ideas of collective identity, shared histories and political solidarity embodied in emergent discourses of Indigenous nationalism situates the process of identity formation at the heart of Indigenous politics. At the Risk of Being Heard indicates that Indigenous peoples have projected both essentialist and more fluid or hybrid forms of identity, suggesting that Indigenous groups have acted pragmatically to develop political positions that best suit their particular circumstances. The various case studies contained in this volume also confirm that Indigenous people have been equally pragmatic in their use of cultural ‘tradition’ and ‘universal’ human rights agendas. Interrogating the interplay between essentialism and hybridity, cultural tradition and universal human rights, the authors raise important questions about the usefulness and long-term viability of these strategies. Although diverse in their focus and subject material, each of the contributors to At the Risk of Being Heard is directed by these critical questions.

In the opening essay, Parker Shipton discusses the applicability of ‘universal’ human rights to the culturally specific traditions of Indigenous Africa. Shipton retraces the development of the human rights agenda to the ideas of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. These thinkers posited the development of rights in terms of social contracts between individuals and states. Believing that true rights were those negotiated via a political contract between people and sovereign, Locke and Rousseau, in particular, attempted to retrace the advancement of ‘mankind’ from the rights of the strong that existed in the ‘law of nature’ to those that later developed in civil society through political consent. Shipton shows how each of these thinkers concocted images of natural man to support their ideas. Derived from second hand stories of North American and African peoples, the myth of the noble savage was born. Man in his ‘natural state’ was considered to be a solitary, independent and anti-social being untrammelled by the social and legal constraints of society. In nature it was the right of the strong to impose their will on the weak. Man’s decision to form civil associations and constitute governments to uphold individual rights and promote the commonwealth was therefore viewed as real progress. This separated the civilisations of Europe from the lawless and primitive savages of the dark continent, the Americas and later the South Pacific. Importantly, the rights agenda commenced by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (and extended by Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer) conceived rights as having universal application. All human beings whose actions are informed by reason would, it was assumed, agree with Locke that rights included those to life, health, liberty and possessions. Likewise it was assumed that all reasonable human beings would prefer the state’s protection of their rights to the law of nature. Moreover, the idea that rights be independent of social position was also considered a ‘self evident’ universal truth.

By exploring the genealogy of universal rights, Shipton reminds us of their cultural specificity, grounded as they are in the ideas of Enlightenment Europe. He also demonstrates that the independent and solitary noble savage existed only as a figment of the European imagination. He shows us through his description of the Indigenous peoples of Africa that western definitions of rights cannot be applied without reference to local traditions and customs. For a start, Shipton notes that many African languages do not possess words that correspond to the English word right, the French droit or the German Recht. Further problems are encountered when Shipton demonstrates that speakers of the Nilotic Luo language (of the Lake Victoria region) do not speak of life and death as either or propositions, but rather as continuums of being, where a fat and healthy person is considered to be more alive than a thin and sickly person. Such linguistic differences make the application of right to life more complex than western philosophers might have supposed. More fundamental is the African idea that rights are as much about groups, networks and classes of people rather than lone individuals. According to African minds, then, rights are highly dependent on one’s position in society. Kin relationships, richness in knowledge, property or friendship, determine rights as do membership of other categories such as social class, gender and age. In Africa the right to be connected in a social constellation of kin and community is regarded as the fundamental human right; it is society underpinned by shared histories, geography, language and culture that matters. As Shipton points out, for many Indigenous groups in Africa the relationship between individuals and nation-states does little to reflect local concepts of rights. Indeed, on the African continent, it has been the colonial and post-colonial state that, contrary to social contract theory, has more often than not functioned to eliminate or violently suppress the rights of the Indigenous peoples. The African experience reflects the uneasy relationship Indigenous peoples everywhere experience in their relationship with western political traditions.

Pessimistically, Shipton concludes that the great foil of the social contract, David Hume, was correct to assert that individuals become subjects of political institutions (and more recently multinational corporations and transnational capital markets) not through any consensual social contract but through force. According to Hume, the state claimed sovereign ‘rights’ only after its subjects acquiesced and came over time to view the states control over their lives as the natural order of things. As Shipton points out, it is Hume’s understanding of politics and ‘rights’ that better reflects the contemporary situation of Indigenous peoples in their struggle against state and other powers. We can interpret the other essays contained in this volume as reiterating this salient conclusion.

Benedict Anderson, for example, demonstrates how the post-colonial states of Indonesia and the Philippines have actively suppressed the emergent nationalist movements of the West Papuans, East Timorese and Bangsa Moros. Anderson’s analysis shows how each separatist movement is the outcome of the same kind of colonial intervention that earlier worked to forge Indonesian and Philippine nationalist responses to Dutch and American imperialism. Anderson suggests that the right of self determination is central to understanding Indigenous nationalist movements. More importantly, he points out that the harnessing of nationalist sentiment by Indigenous groups transforms them into new cultural and political communities. In his words it functions to give previously futureless people, a potentially viable future.

Like Anderson’s contribution, the essay by Lynn Stephen and Jerome Levi that address Indigenous rights in Mexico suggests that no social contract mediates the relationship between these groups and the state. The contribution from Stephen which outlines the struggle of the Zapitistas shows how the Mexican government only responded to Indigenous demands for self determination after the Maya led group were driven to armed rebellion. The contributions of Kirk Endicott, who surveys Indigenous rights in Malaysia, and Marjorie Blazer, who outlines the unfolding struggle of Indigenous peoples in post Soviet Siberia, confirm a depressing picture of Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships that are framed not by consent but rather by the often violent use of state sanctioned force.

While concepts of rights and nation are important to Indigenous peoples no question is more important than who is Indigenous? In an exploration of gender hierarchy among the Urarina people of Peruvian Amazonia, Bartholomew Dean shows us how the political effectiveness of forming essentialist identities to project an Indigenous position to the outside world can mean important social issues like gender inequality are viewed as tradition and are therefore considered off limit to debate. Contributions by Richard Lee and Ian McIntosh demonstrate how notions of hybrid forms of Indigenous identity (an alternative to essentialism) can be utilised to gain social and political objectives. Outlining the re-invention of San (Bushman) identity in Southern Africa, Lee is able to show how hybridity and increased group inclusiveness has reinvigorated San culture by successfully co-opting the majority ‘coloured’ population of the Western Cape. Similarly, McIntosh provides an interesting (and beautifully written) take on reconciliation. Drawing on the philosophical lessons of the Dreaming and the reflections of a late Yolgu Elder, McIntosh argues that reconciliation requires the creation of hybrid Europeans and Aborigines in a framework he describes as ‘membership and re-membership’.

As a collection of essays on diverse Indigenous cultures united by a familiar struggle to survive in their own right, At the Risk of Being Heard is a thought provoking volume. It reminds us that the majority of the world’s Indigenous peoples do not live in midst of the often talked about first world, but are more likely to be subsumed by second and third world nation states considered to be ‘post-colonial’. These writings also show the position of Indigenous peoples around the globe to be complex and problematic. The book highlights to us that Indigenous people have adopted a number of political strategies to defend their rights, and, importantly, that sometimes these strategies are effective and do translate into substantive wins for Indigenous autonomy and self determination. Perhaps most significant of all, for Indigenous leaders and intellectuals, At the Risk of Being Heard reminds us that we are not alone in our ongoing struggle.

July 1, 2004

Beyond My Window

Filed under: Volume 2: Dreamscapes (2002) — Tags: , — Clifton Evers @ 6:32 am

by Lesley Williams, Altitude, Volume 2, Article 5, 2002.

PDF Version: Beyond My Window

Beneath the surface of me (1)…a philosophical daydream on the metaphoric and practical qualities of Utopia

At the tip of each fine frond of the Melaleuca, fat drops of rain collect and gleam wetly with reflected light, until a wrenching wind-gust launches them back into the saturated grey backdrop of afternoon, into the swift flow of water channelling a depression along the edge of the mown space just beyond our fence. Parrots, three, bright orange at chest and crest, a hint of green, turquoise winged, dance and dash through short watery grass, gather wash-away seeds with gusto.

All the birds are energised by the rain. A dozen sparrows peck and twitter in the Hakea. Two blackbirds chase a nosy yellow-wing away from their nest-site in the ivy-covered tank stand.

Lesley Williams studies in the English Department at Adelaide University.


Filed under: Volume 2: Dreamscapes (2002) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 6:27 am

by Ike Kim, Altitude, Volume 2, Creative 1, 2002.

PDF Version: manentersroom






man enters room
man orders
turtle soup

man says “This
isn’t turtle

man enters room
man orders
turtle soup

man says “That
wasn’t turtle

man enters room
man orders
turtle soup

man says “Oh
my god, what
have we done

man enters room
extends body falls
like a stone

man is found
dead with some
thing on his

man enters room
man finds man

man says “We’ve
found Adam.”

man enters room
man goes to

man wakes up
turns to side
finds stick in
bed and dies

man enters room
man turns round
takes two steps
turns twice to
the right looks
forward walks
towards you step

turns twice to
the right walks
forward says a r e
y o u o k a y

reaches for you
see a fire
er pick it
up hold it
pull pin squeeze

the man moves
toward you a r e
y o u o k a y

man enters
room looks at
you takes long

braid of hair
wrapped round neck
in right hand

hand reaches
into jacket

knife cuts off
braid at nape
of neck put

in box stand
palms up to

enters room

Conversations with Barthes Prior to Committing Suicide

Filed under: Volume 2: Dreamscapes (2002) — Tags: , — Clifton Evers @ 6:23 am

by Mark Noe, Altitude, Volume 2, Creative 2, 2002.

PDF Version: Conversations with Barthes Prior to Committing Suicide

This story takes place in black and white. Not the black and white of a Twilight Zone rerun, the hard colourless angles so startling after the filtered sepia tones of a McDonald’s commercial. And not the black and white of false dawn; potential colours only, flattened into shades of grey. This is the black and white of colours so intense, so thick, so full that they shift out of red and blue and green, into a spectrum that has no room for anything but black. So more accurately, this story takes place in black and black.

Close your eyes; hold them shut till the last image has faded from your retina. This black. Squeeze your eyes tight, and ghost images intrude on the blackness, images so bright-black they hurt, and we would turn away if we could.

* * *

Michel Foucault: ‘The text always contains a certain number of signs referring to the author. These signs, well known to grammarians, are personal pronouns, adverbs of time and place, and verb conjunction’ (204-5).

* * *

He wakes from a dream; the dream has been in colour. He always dreams in colour-though he never remembers the dreams, only the colours. And he does not wake directly from the dream. He stops dreaming, going from REM sleep to deep sleep, a place without sight let alone colour, and from there he wakes.

* * *

Roland Barthes: ‘Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance of writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I’ (1988 169).

* * *

He usually awoke with his radio alarm tuned to K-Oldies. Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper would return briefly from the dead to gently nudge him awake. He would shower, shave, brush his teeth, put on one of four suits in one of four shades of grey, and go to work. Sometimes he would stop at McDonald’s on the way and pick up a Breakfast Burrito and an orange juice.

This morning (he could not tell if it was truly morning, or some hour of the night he had never visited before), he did not get up, did not shower or shave or brush his teeth. He did not put on one of four suits in one of four shades of grey. He did not go to work. He lay tangled in his sheets and stared at the night, having decided that it was indeed night. A night so rich in black that the air seemed thick with the colour, as though a fog made up of impossibly small droplets of black had seeped under his door. At the same time, the blackness stretched so far into the distance that his bedroom walls no longer seemed the solid barriers that they had been when he went to sleep.

* * *

Roland Barthes: ‘Ego always has a position of transcendence with regard to you, I being interior to what is stated and you remaining exterior to it’ (1989 16).

* * *

A gargoyle perched on his bedpost. Or it may have been a grotesque. I’m sure I learned the difference in school. Just as I learned the difference between stalactite and stalagmite. I was given a little phrase: ‘Stalactites hold on tight and stalagmites grow with all their might’. But they never gave me a phrase for gargoyle and grotesque. I know it has something to do with water flowing out of their mouths or not. But since this particular gargoyle (or grotesque) had his mouth closed and was perched on a bedpost, the point may be moot.

* * *

Foucault has noted the relationship between pronouns, adverbs of time and place, verb conjunctions-and the author. Barthes the transcendence of the pronoun ‘I’ and its unique connectedness with the pronoun you. An explication of the pronouns in this narrative may tell us something, if not of the author, of the text, if not of the text, of the reader-and the distinction between these terms.

The first paragraph of this narrative contains no personal pronouns. Though this may simply be a rhetorical device, a disembodied not-voice reinforcing the surrealistic, the question arises, who is speaking? Author? Implied author? The protagonist?

Adverbs of time and place, which refer to an imaginary local identified in the opening sentence as ‘This story’ are of no help. ‘Story’ refers, not to a real place, but to a locus that is in flux, that takes on form only with the introduction of a pronoun, the second person you in the phrase ‘close your eyes’. Yet, this you is too ambiguous to focus ‘story’. Perhaps this is that artificial-intimate you found in some experimental fiction, an internal monologue which attempts to incorporate the reader. If this you is the reader, a new problem arises; the admonition, ‘close your eyes’, creates a situation in which reading can not occur.

The locus of ‘story’, never stable, shifts when you supplies its binary, an implied I, and changes to we in ‘we would turn away if we could’. This we invokes both the impersonal, or royal we, and the intimate we which incorporates the implied I with the audience, and emphasises the external position of the reader first introduced by the imperative to ‘close your eyes’.

The locus is drawn back into the text with the third person he, later identified as the protagonist. Interspersed as it is among the numerous pronoun shifts, this he, rather than solidifying the narrative on the protagonist, becomes as transitory as the other pronouns.

Any attempt at locating a narrative focus in the he is further problematised by the chatty I of the gargoyle section. Who is this I? How does the I differ from the he? From the I now speaking?

This fluid sliding of pronouns, rather than obscuring meaning, is revelatory, exposing in minute increments that this story is not about the protagonist (the he). If we would find meaning in this story, we must look, not to the protagonist, but to ourselves, reader and writer, and the tension between the pronouns I and you. Reference Barthes: ‘I and you are reversible, I can always become you, and vice versa’ (1989 16). We must look to the experience created within a text when these two pronouns merge in narrative, replacing the he; in many respects, this merging defines the author-reader dynamic.

* * *

‘Who are you?’ he asked the gargoyle, surprised that he was not surprised to see such a creature perched on his bedpost.

‘A gargoyle,’ the gargoyle replied, then appeared to consider this statement for a moment. ‘I think.’

‘What’s happening?’ he asked.

‘Nothing yet,’ the gargoyle (or grotesque) replied in a granite voice. ‘At one time the rules said that the story must begin with some action of the protagonist. However, we now operate under a new paradigm, which says the story must begin with some action of the reader. Under this paradigm, meaning may be embodied in you, but you have no body.’

* * *

Dialogue confronts the difficulty theory has in addressing the proposition that the speaking subject speaks, not from a text, but from a body. Theory has so distanced the text from that body as to render the body’s existence questionable.

Dialogue, by definition, originates in a body. Through it, metonymically, the knowledge that there is, or was a body remains. At the same time, theory, in distinguishing between the writer and the author, asserts that one is body and the other concept. Still, at some point we must ask ourselves, if the author is dead, what has become of the writer? Which is represented by the I and which by the he and what happens when the you of the reader is introduced to them?

* * *
Snow started falling. Thick, soft flakes that hit the desk top and collapsed into clear pools of water, to slide noiselessly down the slope of the desk. They looked florescent in the blackness.

One landed on his cheek and dissolved into a slushy rivulet down his chin.

‘What’s this?’

The gargoyle appeared to examine the blackness with intense concentration. The snowflakes that landed on him clung to his granite surface without melting.


* * *

Black. All visual images in this narrative are sucked into this colour that is not a colour, yet that embodies and includes all other colours.

At some point we must examine this use of colour. Are these colour images what Barthes refers to as ‘insignificant notation’ (1989 142), descriptors which have no purpose within the structure of the narrative? Is colour simply a part of setting, atmosphere, description? Or-as Barthes has made numbingly clear in S/Z, does, in fact, ‘everything signif(y) something’ (51)? Are colour images (those of sight, a function of the body) the first indication that a body exists behind, possibly within, the text-that the narrative, unlike the text, does not exist outside of a temporality conceived and perceived by a body?

Black is imbued with an excess of symbolic meaning in our culture. It is just such an excess that makes it useful as a metaphor for narrative. Extending the word black: ‘black hole’ provides us a complete metaphor for narrative. Colour, not colour, yes-yet, not a static image. Colour metamorphosing, in flux, within time and transcending time. Sucking everything up into it, or, recognising that within such a temporality it is simply impractical to differentiate between the colours which form it. Each individual colour undifferentiated from the other. Just as writer, reader, text, are distinct-yet become undifferentiated within the narrative.

* * *
The snow melted. The blackness became complete.

A television flickered to life, breaking the blackness into intermittent reflections of its own grainy mirror of reality. Steve Allen sat comfortably in a swivel leather chair facing two men on a couch. Smiling at the camera, he spoke.

‘I have with me today Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, interestingly enough, both Frenchmen, and incidentally, both dead. So we’re very fortunate to have them here tonight to discuss the death of the author with us.’ He swivelled his chair to face the older man. ‘Let’s start with you, Dr Barthes. What is the significance of the author to current theoretical thought?’

Barthes cleared his throat and spoke slowly, as though choosing each word with care.

‘The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us’ (1988 168).

‘I take it this isn’t what’s really happening,’ Steve Allen suggested.

Barthes nodded. ‘Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing’ (1988 168).

‘I’m afraid you’ve lost me there,’ Steve Allen said, turning to the camera and chuckling in a comfortable, self-depreciating way, as though to assure any viewers who were also lost that any reasonable person would be. He turned back to Barthes. ‘Of course, your most famous statement, Doctor Barthes, is that the author must die. Why is that?’

Foucault answered, and though Barthes fidgeted, he seemed content to allow him to speak for both of them. ‘This relationship between writing and death is�manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing’ (198).

Steve Allen smiled. ‘That’s very interesting. Now, I’m afraid it’s time for a word from our sponsor.’

The television sputtered, then went blank as some inane jingle for some fast food restaurant attempted to dissipate the darkness.

* * *
The protagonist was no longer in bed. He stood in line at McDonald’s. He blinked in surprise at a colour that wasn’t black. His eyes soon adjusted to the filtered sepia tones.

He was naked, though no one seemed to notice. The employees and patrons wore identical smiles of delight on their faces. An inspiring jingle perfectly complimented the sepia tones.

‘This doesn’t look good,’ the gargoyle, perched on the ‘Fresh Salad’ cooler said.

‘What doesn’t?’ the protagonist asked. He found the presence of the gargoyle reassuring.

‘He’s getting desperate.’


‘The Author. Better do something soon. He feels as though he has lost his agency. He requires you to give him meaning.’

‘Isn’t he the one in charge? Isn’t he writing this?’

‘At one time, within the confines of the story, he was God. Or was it within the confines of reality, God was author? That’s why he (the author, not God) started writing in the first place, to make of himself the speaking subject. Now he’s not even sure if he will exist after the text is completed. If something doesn’t happen soon, he may revert to nihilism.’ The gargoyle shook his head stiffly. ‘That isn’t a very pretty sight.’

* * *

Roland Barthes: ‘The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author’ (1988 172).

* * *

The door to the McDonald’s opened and a man in camo, carrying a gun, stepped in. The protagonist supposed the gun was an AK47.

‘Yes, it is,’ said the gargoyle. ‘You should have done something.’

‘What?’ He yelled. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t tried. He didn’t know what was expected of him-a typical post-modern dilemma. He wasn’t sure who he was-character, author, reader. He wasn’t sure, if he died, who would die with him. He wasn’t even sure whose thought that was.

The delighted smiles never left the faces of the employees and patrons as one by one the man in camo blew their brains into pulpy purple and grey abstract patterns on the otherwise spotless tile wall.

He blew the gargoyle’s head into dust and pebbles, then turned the gun on him.

* * *

Headline: Gunman Kills 17 In McDonald’s

A lone gunman shot and killed seventeen people in the McDonald’s on South 820 this morning. An eighteenth victim survived the shooting, but remains in critical condition. His name is being withheld pending notification of his relatives. (Details on pg. 6).

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. ‘What is an Author?’ In Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988.
Barthes, Roland. ‘The Death of the Author’. In Modern Criticism and Theory. Ed. David Lodge. London: Longman, 1988.
–. The Rustle of Language. Berkley: University of California Press, 1989.
–. S/Z. New York: Noonday, 1974.


Filed under: Volume 2: Dreamscapes (2002) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 6:19 am

by Liza Slater, Altitude, Volume 2, Creative 3, 2002.

PDF Version: Balloonman

Looking back
I’ve lost them. The ribbon has been cut to this bridge which our son engineered, that they say is a marriage between art and science. My wife Helen is striding out front there somewhere, arm in arm with our son Eddie. Me, I’m back here. I’m not one for crowds. All those people surging behind you, it just makes me nervous. If they get too excited or just have to get somewhere, they’ll trample you. You see I’m a balloon man. I make animals out of balloons. You know mainly to thrill the kiddies. Something for them to take away from the side show; more permanence then fairy floss, more impermanence then memory. That’s what I love about the balloon figures the most, their impermanence; beauty is after all. If the crowd, who are the first ever to cross this bridge, were to look below to their right, they would see the cities only permanent fair. The fair, or carnie as we jokingly call it, has yet to stir for the day. Mornings come late to those of us with a preference for in betweens rather than crossings.

‘We’ are of course very proud of our son. I want to be proud of my son. He calls me Harry, never Dad. I’ve never grown use to it. I do give myself some credit for my son’s career. A little that is. I’m not for parents sharing too much of their children’s limelight. So much of who they are, is who they are. But as I tried to explain to Helen once, my career path although appearing to be extremely different, isn’t really. Well of course it is, but isn’t, also. I believe Eddie’s love of bridges comes from my own love of building bridges. That’s what I do, I believe, as a balloon man. The bridge between the dream and holding the dream. It is after all the imagination that pursues the kiddie into wanting, lets say a giraffe for a pet. And after all it is the imagination that transforms the balloon into the giraffe the child wanted. Remember how much you wept over the loss of your special toy. The joy upon its return.

What led Eddie to become the engineer of this bridge? This bridge that causes people to smile and to get up early to be the first to cross it. Was it planned from a young age? Or was it just a serious of decisions that he hardly knows he made? Thinking back over his growing up I always get tangled in my own. From up here it all seems so clear the connection between this bridge of Eddie’s and what I do. How much difference is there between what I do and Eddie’s chosen profession? A lot some would say. But is there? Every structure, no matter how big, eventually crumbles. This I have always known but just haven’t known how to thread it into words. It is the very essence of my chosen career: what is will change no matter what. The lime green sausage balloon dog that so thrills the child, will deflate, become forgotten, lost, or accidentally get squished between the wall and a leg of a chair. We take the rubber of dreams and attempt to twist it into reality, ending up with knotted balloon giraffes, sausage dogs, and poodles. Despite that we grow to love them.

What I wanted to tell you is what I can see from up here. I get easily side tracked. Helen points this out to me. It’s true. There I am making a family dinner, chopping up the vegies, marinating the meat, and before I know it I’m fixing the leg of a chair that’s been rickety for too long. Helen fails to see the connection, only that I’m dithering over dinner. I would argue, if I was one for arguing, that for a successful family dinner it’s best if there is a sense of security at the family table. “Dinner will be late, yet again!” Helen hates a late dinner. It upsets her routine. She likes to walk her babies directly after dinner and then is one to retire early with a good book. She’s an avid reader. It’s not for me. I’ve always been one to use my hands.

School was not a good time for me. It sticks with you, all that school torment. I was always so big. People either gave me a hard time about it or expected me to be what I wasn’t. It wasn’t that I was a fat child, just a lot older looking than my years. People looked at my body, not at me. Of course I was expected to be a sportsman: a child thrust into a scrum of men. I was asked questions I could never answer. Spoken to openly about, what to me were still the mysteries of adulthood, sex. I just didn’t understand. Always felt so confused and left out of the joke. I disappointed; was disappointed. Looking in the mirror was like looking at a stranger. Once I implored Helen to understand that being a child that was so big only makes the adult want to be small.

There I go off on a tangent. A terrible terrible trait. Well there I go again talking in the negative. Susan says to me, gently, that I do this and that I’m being harsh on myself, rather I should say something like… I’m not sure how she’d put it, but she would encourage me to be more positive. Susan is a friend of mine who works the fair in the summer months. Only in the summer. From up here I can almost see her caravan. Not quite, I can’t lean out far enough. She still remains hidden. It is too early for her to be awake. To be brewing her first coffee in a long succession of coffees.

Since Susan has been a part of the fair she has brought, and I believe I can talk on behalf of the carnies as well as the general public, something fresh and well I don’t think I’m going too far to say nurturing. Yes, she definitely has something that in all my years I’ve never witnessed before. I’ve had the privilege to form a friendship with her. Which I’m sure I benefit from so much more than she does. Not that Susan would see it that way. No, she is too gracious and generous for that. Instead she would stroke my arm and say, “You’re doing it again.” But I’m not, there are few things I disagree with Susan about, but this I stand firmly on.

I often chat away the quiet parts of the day with Susan. We’ve got to know each other well. Or rather she has got to know me well. I talk. She listens. I don’t know if I could ever know her. She is beyond my reach. The years have come and gone, seasons, carnivals and each morning during the summer months Susan sets up her van along side my tent. But the anticipation, the dread that tomorrow is the beginning of summer, the time Susan joins us, and she won’t be there. Sometimes it’s so great that I’ve had a request from a child to make a giraffe and instead it becomes a question mark or a knotted beast with several heads. I even feel it when I know she will be there, of course she will be there, it is the middle of the season and her van is parked just there and she is asleep in it and of course she is going to rise in the morning, open the shutters and say, “Come in Harry, I’m just brewing some coffee”.

It’s lucky the security guards know me well and know I’m of good character, otherwise the times that I’ve grown the most anxious and found myself standing outside her van in the early hours of the morning, they might have thought my intentions were wrong. Instead they say, “Forgot something again Harry”, or “Expecting a big day tomorrow”, and stroll away. I’d never go in, interrupt her. It’s terribly bad to wake someone from their dreams.

Once, maybe more, as a child I stood outside my Mother’s bedroom door hoping she was still inside. The sounds had died down; left me alone. I would miss them: the crescendo, then her cry. Some people love to be woken to the sound of the singing of birds, I liked to be awake to them. If I could still hear the breathy voiceless calls then I knew she was still there. When it stopped, the rustling, the murmurs, how could I be sure.

Once I entered her room and whispered “Mum”. “She’s asleep boy. What, you can’t sleep? Me neither, I was just thinking of slipping outside for a cigarette, you’re welcome to join me. To sit with me that is.” The window was open and if it wasn’t for the breeze, the lift and fall of the curtain allowing the street light to enter the room like the sweep of a lighthouse, I wouldn’t have even known she was there. The stranger pulled on his boxers, then jeans and t-shirt. It was a warm night, he needn’t have bothered with his shoes. In the living room was a mini zoo: balloon animals hung from the ceiling fan, still life danced across the top of the lounge, noses dipped in empty dinner plates and beer bottles, some had tripped, fallen and were left abandoned on the floor. There were two of each type, but they had grown separate, scattered throughout what to them must have been the vastness of the living room. I attempted to pick some of them up, reunite them, but he interrupted me. “What’s your name son?” “Harry.” “Named after your old man were you?” “I don’t know.” “Yeah, I think you might have been. Do you like these Harry? You’re like your Mum, she loved ’em. I’ve never had to make so many of them, she had me working Harry, she did.”

The veranda railing creaked and shuddered under me. I didn’t trust it any more but his sinewy worn body rested easily upon it. With an upright back he lit a cigarette. “I’d offer you one, but you’re probably still a little young, only just though. How old are you?” “Eleven.” “Jesus, I would of guessed at least 15. You’re no small fry are you? Your old man must of been a big bloke. Oh well, good luck to you, you won’t be needing to waste your breath blowing and twisting coloured rubber for your keep and comfort, will ya?” Nestled in my cupped hands was one of his giraffes. “Will you teach me to make one like this?” “I’m all out of balloons son. Used up my store helping your Mum relax. Anyway what if I pass through this town again, I don’t want to have ruined my chances, your Mum’s got a balloon man at home and is seeking comfort elsewhere.” Turning he flicked his cigarette butt across the lawn. It must have at least made it to the footpath. He slid off the railing, went inside and picked up his gear, leaving the balloon animals. “See you, Harry.” He shook my hand firmly, like man to man, then walked out onto the road and continued walking.

I gathered up some of the pairs, knowing the house would be spotless when I got up in the morning. I hid them under my bed and out they’d come at night. What was I going to do when they wore out or deflated? They don’t last forever, as I said before, the beauty of impermanence. During those sleepless nights I taught myself to make them. Following the twists and knots of the coloured rubber I discovered how it was done, helped along by a book I borrowed from the library. But I did it, without his help. When I showed Mum (I hadn’t told her before) she wept. She wept at a lot of things, it was hard to know what kind it was. “Fun aren’t they?” “Where did you learn that from?” “A book from the library. Mrs Hickson interbranched it for me. I can make any kind you like. What would make you smile?” “I’m smiling Harry, they’re lovely.” “You’re crying.” “No darling, I’m smiling, I promise.” It was the early evening, time for her to be back at work. “You can make your own dinner tonight, can you?” “Yeah.” I would watch her cross the lawn, turn, and always she’d say half laughing, “Don’t forget to go to sleep”, wave and enter the barely lit street.

Last night I couldn’t sleep so I went back and left a poodle I’d made on Susan’s steps. Yesterday a few young men hassled her when I was away having lunch with Helen and Eddie. Susan told me about it later. I don’t know what they said or did, she was just quiet all afternoon and when I asked her what was troubling her, she asked me, “Do you think those young blokes think our lives are meaningless?” I didn’t want to say yes so I just made us a coffee and dropped some whisky in it. When she took the first sip she laughed and touched my cheek. I thought if I just left the poodle on her step she’d know I’m watching over her. When I moved close to her van I could feel the gentle tremor and hear her birdsong.

Helen and I hadn’t made love in, oh, I couldn’t tell you how long, but when I crawled into bed beside her she turned to me. Did we both call another’s name? I don’t know. What I do know, looking down on the cities only permanent fair, is that we wake each day tangled in one another. And though I know the impossibility of forgetting, it feels like from up here, I only need to turn and I could leave it all behind.


Filed under: Volume 1: Subjectivities (2001) — Tags: — Clifton Evers @ 5:41 am

by Kirsten Heysen, Altitude, Volume 1, Creative 1, 2001.

PDF Version: Leaving

For one week Ruth watches her neighbours. It is a hot week and when she pulls the horizontal plastic blinds apart they bend easily beneath her hands. The blinds, she thinks, could be moulded in this heat and then Jim would know she had been watching. There are things to do and when Ruth pulls her fingers away the blinds spring easily back into shape as if she had not been looking at all. Across the room she lifts a shirt from the washing basket. One of the arms is twisted back inside the body and looking at it makes her feel odd, as if the shirt does not belong to Jim but to some large unknown man sawn off at the shoulder.

There is the life being lived across the road and then there is her own. The life across the road, the one she watches through the blinds, belongs to Eric and Nan. Eric and Nan’s life is fifty years older than Ruth’s own and it is Eric who holds it together. Eric has a pale wooden ladder, which he props up against the trunk of a peach tree. He climbs the ladder to wrap green netting around the fruit. Ruth has watched Eric collect the mail and noticed that he does not look hopefully at the letters as Ruth does when she collects her own mail, but instead glances left at his wrapped up fruit tree. The letters, white, standard, dull, he holds in his large palm and then he disappears inside behind the screen door.

Every afternoon when the peach tree’s limbed shadow falls across the footpath, Eric, who is tall, holds the screen door open. He presses his back against the right-hand side of the doorframe and extends his arm across to hold the screen door open. Nan passes beneath him, like he is one half of Oranges and Lemons. Say the bells of St Clement’s Ruth thinks she hears her hum. Nan wears white bobby socks like a cheerleader and looks at the sky as if she is seeing it for the first time. Eric walks Nan to the end of the street and then back again. She holds her husband’s hand and her walk is frail, but deliberate. With each step she is pinning the sunlight to the footpath. Eric is airing his wife, Ruth thinks. And this thought which is funny and awful at the same time, makes her laugh and will not leave her head. She imagines passing Eric and Nan in the street and Eric saying “Arvo! Just airing the wife.”

Ruth doe snot know the sound of Eric’s voice. They have waved to each other once, on a hot day, when she was unloading the car and Eric was watering his garden and water was hissing across the asphalt into her cement driveway.

There are other lives on the street. Ruth has watched them and then left them alone. Once fence away is a dentist and his wife. Once, on a corner, they were unavoidable. The four of them: the dentist and his wife and Rut hand Jim faced one another and then the dentist said “How do you pass your Sundays?” and walked off leaving the question behind him. His wife remained.

“He is used to people not responding,” she said. But there had been other times, on the street, at the shop, when Ruth noticed the dentist’s wife did the same thing.

And on the other side a wife and her husband who does something or other with computers. These were not the lives Ruth watched. They were familiar. They were television lives; the way the husband straightened his tie as he walked out of the front door and kissed his bride and yelled at the dog to get out of the way and filled the air with the blip of a car alarm. Sometimes the wife would signal for him to wait while she dashed inside to grab the lunch he had forgotten. As the car backed out of the driveway, Ruth wanted to clap at the flawlessness of the performance. “Wave to your studio audience!” she wanted to call out.

That morning the computer husband had seen Ruth bringing in the washing. “Alright?” the husband called to her. “And Jim?” “Jim’s leaving.” The blip of the car alarm cut across her words.

“But you were always laughing,” he said and then looked embarrassed. Ruth was thrown by his words and noticed his soft hands opening the car door and felt mean that she never liked him.

“C’est la vie,” she said to him and then walked inside with the noise of his car behind her. She realises it is not everyone else filling the air with cliches; it is only her who does this.

Across the road Eric opens a door. Ruth puts down the basket she is carrying.


Nan sees the edges of things. She grasps at the wholeness of an idea, of a memory, but the details tip and slide away from her. A clock ticks and then chimes heavily; the room is weighted. From outside comes a shuffle and scraping. Nan looks at the clock.

It was a wedding present that came in a large green box with Brunhorst stamped on the lid. Nan remembers surely and firmly the box being handed, not to her, but to Eric. It is him, Eric, outside, and the scraping sound is that of a ladder being shifted.

Outside, across the road, Nan has seen a girl. Only once or twice, only briefly. The girl wears jeans low on her hips. She hunches into herself and moves quickly.

“Straighten your shoulders girl!” That’s what Nan’s mother would have said. Nan used to hunch like that, over the piano. The clock ticks. That girl needs to sop climbing on the roof at night! Nan is angry now. She has seen that girl scamper high; tearing her heart on the guttering, sobbing at the moon. The anger Nan feels is not at the girl. It is an old remembered danger, when her own body was lithe and wild, like the girl’s. With a straight arm, Nan once threw a soup bowl against the wall. She used her teeth like needles to draw blood from the cushion of her sister’s skin.

Amongst the red of her thoughts a door opens. There is a human light and a voice that carries with it the warmth from outside and Nan feels the anger fall away.

“I have something for you!” Eric comes towards her. He is holding out a peach. Nan accepts it; she loves its perfect velvety weight and the way the sun has crept beneath the flesh. She smiles at her husband. In her hands she feels she is holding everything that is between them.


Ruth is used to moving. There were eleven houses when she was a child. Eleven houses and six schools. Jim wanted to know more.

“I can’t imagine shifting around like that,” he said.

He had been to Thailand, to some beaches there, but that was before they met.

“The buses are so crowded people hang from the doorways,” he told her. “It’s as if the bus has arms and legs.”

Ruth and Jim left Melbourne once and raced the daylight along the Great Ocean Road as far as Port Fairy. Jim’s shoulders, Ruth remembers, slumped when they turned inland. The house when they returned was airless. They threw the windows open and wished they lived by the ocean. One Saturday morning, she was cool and wrapped in a towel after a shower and he chased her around the house. She tripped and they laughed as he caught her. Jim kicked around an old soccer ball and said he wouldn’t mind travelling somewhere again, like Thailand. He threw a terracotta pot across the lawn. He grinned at the pot’s flight before it shattered against the fence.

Jim said he hated the stillness of the street. Ruth began watching the movement of other.

“I have to get moving,” Jim said. “There are things�”

Jim is in a room, on his knees, taping up a box. He leans over the box and then straightens up and folds his shoulders in and stretches his arms out in front of him. He pulls at a loose piece of rubber on the heel of his sneaker. Ruth watches him from another room. The distance between them makes her generous and she feels for him the same uncomplicated love she felt when first seeing a photo of him as a child.

She turns away from the screech of packing tape and walks to the window. The afternoon is stretched long and bright and Eric and Nan are out there. An icecream truck, faded and out of place, sings along the street. It passes Eric and Nan, and Ruth is pleased by the way its song crowds out the noise of the packing tape. Eric raises his arm and Nan, still clasping his hand, spins once beneath him.

Ruth leaves the window and moves outside. The van carries its song down another street and Eric and Nan keep walking.

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