colin hood on 11 Jul 2000 00:37:28 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] [pluto australia] Fact or Friction: hay-ride to distraction

Fact or Friction: hay-ride to distraction
Colin Hood

Fact or Fiction? A nonfiction writer's festival
Saturday July 8
State Library of NSW


Sponsored by the Masters Degree in Writing for the Media Macquarie University, this wizard little one-day chat-fest featured Margaret Wertheim, John Dale, Margo Kingston, Ghassan Hage, Mary Zournazi and Mark Davis speaking - or so it was advertised - on the role of the non-fiction writer in today's media.

Well apart from the (truly) thrilling confessions of Dale and Birmingham on their recently published non-fiction narratives (Sin City and Leviathan respectively), there was little discussion on laws of genre and genre 'contamination.'

Too bad - i probably would have paid my $27.00 just to hear these two speak anyway (assuming lunch or brunch was part of the deal).

By the time Margo Kingston and Ghassan Hage hit the mikes, the debate had clearly shifted to other topic themes and questions; as: how do we effectivly politicise the gap between compromised social democratic ideals of the old left and the socially de-contracted policies of the right?

and: the withering of a certain kind of public space for engaged political discussion ... what are we gonna do about that?

Maybe i imagined these spin out seminar themes, heard other voices on topics closer to my heart, but they sounded okay and i ran with them ..

While Hage and Kingston didn't engage with specific themes of fiction or non-fiction, it was clear to many of us, that a call to an 'ethics of understanding' in debates around multiculturalism (Hage), and advocating a smarter approach to the Hanson phenomenon (Kingston), were not in any way 'outside' the official topic.

The results - intended or not - were spectacular.

Kingston remarked towards the end of her allotted time that Hanson was a gift of sorts, enabling a rediscovery of the purposes of journalism.

and on Howard's refusal to apologise? Well that's an opportunity to open up a debate that - gasp! - may have closed and withered under a Labor Government's embrace.

Tricky stuff, but as Hage observes, in a social space 'oriented to hostile otherness' (like ATTACKING the tourist dollar to enrich our special Sydney life-style) there is a need to shift from consolidated arguments of those who mainly 'think like me' ('narcissistic rhetorics of fundamentalism' in the ramped up version), to a broader-base ethics of understanding.

Hage's argument is superbly articulated. If - in any way - the likes of (the)'Ayatollah Johnny' speak for (or stand in for) the preferred addressees of my own poltical message or rhetoric ... then the machines of political persuasion become somewhat more complex - requiring greater time and patience to successfully manipulate.

It echoes an argument voiced by Cary Wolfe, respondent in a long-running US debate on how academics might speak in public:

"Different audiences to be moved or persuaded, require different and even incompatible rhetorical strategies, and those multiple forms of address must still be reconciled with what the intellectual knows about those rhetorical terms."

(Cary Wolfe, "Getting the Dirt on The Public Intellectual: A Response to Michael Bérubé" - EBR - 1996 -
- accessed July 10, 2000)

Running closer to the seminar theme (on the terrain of scientific versus popular genres) was Margaret Wertheim's discussion starter on science writing for a general readership ...

Where does one position this - highly educated non-specialist - author of The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace - in the 'space between' the expert cultures of academe (or corporate R&D) and the voracious Australian reading public?

Well - for starters - it depends on what you define as general 'publics' and expert 'cultures'.

For the moment I follow the line (rejecting rigid sociographic, socio-economic categorisation) taken by social systems theorist, Dietrich Schwanitz:

"It is no longer groups of people that are differentiated but types [and sub-systems] of communications." [...] "The individual human being belongs to each of these functionally differentiated subsystems for only short periods of time with only limited aspects of his person depending on his respective role as a voter, pupil, reader, patient, or litigant." (Cultural Critique, Spring 1995)

While I admire Wertheim's work as much as the next general reader, i cannot support the view of missionary accomplishment that some attribute to her published work.

It's an unfortunate simplification: to put too much faith in a selfless devotion to getting it 'out there'; or to over-rely on what one American speech act theorist labelled the conduit metaphor; that is, translating ideas retrieved from the sacred space of true discourse on science, humanities, politics, and feeding it to the masses (the largest student body imaginable) in digestible format - via publishing, TV, the classrooom, or whatever medium

..... one-way street to a life of the mind in semi-permanent..

For there is no reading public as such - average and reliable (in it's place and position - if not in mood). What's more - and i repeat these words of Pluto Publisher Tony Moore to good effect i hope - the trains don't run there anymore.

For those 'public substance' abusers (and lovers of the canon) still in counselling, you could begin with this little 'go public' visualisation exercise - an image of Eurydice slipping back into Hades - and see where that takes you. I'm hazarding (as French philsopher/essayist, Maurice Blanchot once imagined it to be): a cruel, virtual space of vanity, hope and ultimate disappointment.

For the smarties, there's a multiplicity of social (and communicational relations) fueling antagonisms, changing political sentiment, educational and vocational effects, the loss of distinction between draft and finished pieces of writing. And in that pot-pourri we might draw closer to the truth about reading and reading publics.

For the rest of us i guess, it's the business end of the lamp-shade as usual.


Colin Hood is online editor for Pluto Press Australia
Once upon a time he authored a brief confession
on writing for the web in and out of public spaces.

Colin Hood
Online Editor
Social Change Australia
0404 285 983