Sunday, January 27, 2013

Contextualising the whinge

I'm not running at the moment due to some sort of weird chronic-fatigue-like virus. I know that there are millions of people in the world who have real problems to deal with - famine, starvation, war, etc - which are much worse than mine, but just for me, not being able to run is horrible, it's the worst thing ever.

Aren't I just a brilliant compassionate liberal. I realise just how big the problems that others in the world face are in comparison to those that I do. I understand and am grateful for my position as a citizen of a first-world country with access to all the material goods, health-care services, education, food, etc that I could ever need.

But there's a spanner ready to be thrown into the works here. I'm not stating how minor my problems are for the purposes of highlighting the burdens carried by others - it's completely the other way around. I am describing a different social reality - that of people in the third world - to justify contextualising my own problems. Once this has been done, I can complain all that I like, because I'm smart and cynical, because I supposedly understand that my problems are relatively minor. In this way, I'm using their problems to legitimise the fact that I am complaining - how less ethical would my outburst be if I hadn't mentioned the real issues of famine, starvation, etc...? In that case, I'd just be a whingey brat.

This is a similar kind of argument to the one that I made about the less-compassionate underside of "Born to Run" - here we perceive a certain colonial exploitation. Without the problems of the people in the third world, I could not complain about my own - I need their problems in order to feel ethically sound. I am creating/maintaining/using their negative circumstances for my benefit - I am exploiting them.

Us do-gooder liberals are so used to contextualising in defense of others. An example: we once had a discussion in Spanish class about bull-fighting - should it be banned or not? Many people said "yes, of course, it's a practice that is brutal to animals", but my friend said "no, porque es su cultura" ("no, because it's their culture"). What he meant was that, within the Spanish cultural context and as a result of the nation's historical development up to this point, many people in Spain do not see it as a brutal, unnecessary practice, and that this activity is part of their cultural identity, part of who they are - therefore, we should respect it; we should leave it alone. The flaw in this argument is obvious - the cultural value of the practice doesn't stop the bull from being put through immense amounts of pain.

Before now, I haven't noticed that we often make those arguments in relation to ourselves - On a fundamental level, the line is: "within the historical development of my nation and my current social context, my life is the worst fucking shit ever".

My mum once said that "there's nothing worse than having the newspaper left out on the wet lawn".
There was no end of laughter for my brother and I - "ummmm mum...holocaust? Genocide?" It's as if the complaint would be rendered tolerable by mum saying "I know there are much worse things happening in the world, but I hate having my papers left out on the lawn, it's horrible!"

Like the suffering of the bull, the thing that must be kept in mind here is that it's ultimately still a useless whinge - no amount of contextualising will change this.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology 3.5: the other side of the coin

A simple fact dictates the life of a runner, a human, an organism:
We must take in energy in order to expend it.

We consume.
In two senses: we consume energy (in the form of food) in order to consume energy (through action).
I apologise, it's a bit of a pointless trick, a bit of a play on the double meaning of the verb "consume" (according to 1. To take in as food; eat or drink up. 2. a. To expend; use up) to set up a conceptual totality.

If we think of this "totality of  consumption", as it relates to humans, as a coin; let's be specific - an Aussie five cent coin; the taking in of energy could be represented by the head of Queen Elizabeth II, and its use by the upturned echidna. (I'm trying to think of a way to make this designation symbolic but right now it's arbitrary - unfortunately the Queen doesn't seem to eat that much and echidnas don't seem to move too much).

What is this five cent coin of consumption? Where is it? Who does it belong to?

It would be too simple (and too unashamedly Marxist) to say "IN THE WALLET OF THE BOURGEOISIE!!!" Instead, I'll venture to say that there is no one who can lay complete claim to it - such a thing would be impossible. Instead, a constant battle is being waged for its control. But unfortunately complete control of the coin is impossible - one can only hope to have enough power over the coin to be able to use it.

A clarification: everyone can take in and expend energy, but some more than others. And some use this consumption as a form of class distinction.

Whereas I explored the Echidna's belly (the use of energy) in Ultrarunning and Capitalist Ideology 3, I failed to notice the queen's head (its intake). That's not surprising, I generally spend a lot more time in the bush than following the movements of the royals. But that doesn't mean that the Queen's head isn't important. In fact, our coin wouldn't be an Australian five cent coin without that side.

It's like the Kellogg's Nutri-Grain motto: "you only get out what you put in". I argued that the "getting out" had been used by the dominant class as a "technology of power" (you can thank Foucault for that term). But didn't really consider the "putting in".

Anyways, you get the drift.

Since then, I've read "You aren't what you eat: Fed up with gastroculture" by Stephen Poole. He's kinda (used in the weakest sense of the term) like Foucault - minus the impressive grounding in and contribution to theory and plus a lot of anger. Poole is hilariously critical of the way we think about food - from the food porn of Masterchef to the "orthorexia" (obsession with eating right) of yuppies to the way many people think that food can take us back in time, or propel us towards utopia.

Until reading this, I'd never realised just how similar the dominant discourses concerning ultrarunning - and fitness in general - are to the dominant discourses on food.

I'll just offer some examples of the latter, through the eyes of Poole, hoping that anyone who's trawled a few ultrarunning blogs, or read Men's Health, or Liked a fitness motivation page on Facebook, will recognise the similarities with the former. I will give some prompts anyways.

- Food [fitness, running] is not only a 'safe passion' (in the tellingly etiolated modern sense of 'passion' that just means liking something a lot); it has become an obligatory one (Pg. 8).
- The orthorexic [ultra-runner]...displays a 'search for an identity and spirituality in eating  beahaviour' [running], just as foodists [(that is, food elitists)] do. The orthorexic's eating behaviour [runner's training habits] 'generates a feeling of superiority over the lifestyle and eating habits of other people', just as that of the foodists does (17).
- A cook [runner] ought to be 'socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her own contribution to a fair and sustainable society'; and, moreover, 'through our cooking [running], our ethics and our aesthetics, we can contribute to the culture and identity of a people, a region, a country', and 'we all have a responsibility to know and protect nature'. Only cooks [running], it seems, can save us from bad politics, cultural decline, and ecocidal apocalypse (26).
- You might think that, to deserve the name, a person's life 'meaning' ought to transcend her function as an ambulatory digestive tract [as a pair of moving legs] (27)
- The preference for what is designated 'heritage'...bespeaks the foodist's [hippie ultrarunner's] anti-modern prejudice that what is currently eaten [done] by the masses is a degraded industrial hybrid, and that by guzzling [running] our way back to the rural past we can recover something like authenticity in our food [lives] (88).
- Through foraging [running], Redzepi [Anton Krupicka, any other hippie ultrarunner]...'got connected to the sea and soil, and now they're an integral part o me. I experience the world through food [running]' (125 - beginning of quote altered to insert the foraging chef's name).
 These are just a few examples. I wont explore this side of the coin any further, it's not my place (I know little about foodist culture), but I think the parallels between dominant food discourse and dominant ultrarunning discourse throw up some interesting questions about the relationship between the two, their place in the "technology of power" and their use for class distinction.

It seems to indicate that, in general, people try to assert their position of dominance now less than ever by having (possessions), but more by knowing (about food, the best restaurants to go to, etc...) and doing (eating particular foods, running ultras, etc...) particular things. This is probably because of the fact that mass industrialisation has made the possession of high quality material goods more widely available.

Our five-cent coin probably merits further examination, but for now I'll let it rest, and let some more ideas brew.

Friday, January 11, 2013

An optimistic post-script to "the Dialectic of the Bush"

A few days after writing the last post, I felt like flicking through Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment". That brilliantly critical, negative, harrowing work which turns the triumphalism of enlightenment thinking on its head.
In Adorno's chapter The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception I found a passage that describes my argument very accurately and in truth probably subconsciously conditioned it:
"Amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display. At its root is powerlessness. It is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality. The liberation which amusement promises is from thinking as negation (Stanford University Press 2002 edition: pg 116)."
And it was roughly at this point that my argument about the "Dialectic of the Bush" ended.

Adorno, however, continues:
"The shamelessness of the rhetorical question "What do people want?" lies in the fact that it appeals to the very people as thinking subjects whose subjectivity it specifically seeks to annul. Even on those occasions when the public rebels against the pleasure industry it displays the feebleness systematically instilled in it by that industry."
It's the classic question of human agency. The classic question that many analyses adopting a certain "Spirit of Marxism" (in the language of Derrida) tend to avoid, or can simply "conjure away" by claiming false consciousness. Indeed, Adorno seems to do the latter here: people want "escape" in the form of the products of the culture industry as opposed to a transformed reality - but they are conditioned to want this by the very culture industry that they chose (and is in truth, already chosen for them). He sets up a binary opposition between wanting to escape from and wanting to transform our reality. It's an opposition that works reasonably well when thinking about  mindless TV, exciting action movies and erotic novels, the content of which rarely ever provokes the thought of another future that is unreachable within the frame of today's social relations, political systems, etc...

But is such an opposition effective when examining the "escape" of the bush? To answer this question, we should look at the differences between the reality portrayed by the products of the culture industry, and the reality of the bush.

In many cases, the former is an amplified projection of our current reality. That is, it's a more sensually exciting version of what we experience in the "system" of today. Take the TV show "Friends" for instance. We all have Friends, and many of us have housemates. But I doubt that we experience the same amount of drama, excitement and hillarity that the characters in "Friends" do. We escape to their world, a more exciting version of our own. It is a world that is conceptually possible, if unlikely, for us in the current frame of society. We escape to a better version of our current reality. We do not escape to a transformed reality.

But what is "the bush"? Within the National Park (an entity that is, admittedly, controlled by the system) is nature left untouched by the power of human machinery. It is nature, unappropriated by the dominating logic of enlightenment. In this way, it is a different reality - a pre-enlightenment reality. [the fact that the bounds of these parks are maintained by this type of thought irrelevant for the purposes of our argument - when people are in National Parks, the reality that they immediately perceive is a different one]. It seems utterly conservative, reactionary to look to the future by enlisting the past. But the untouched bushland is not just the past, it is a past before the past, a past before the logic of enlightenment. A different reality that was transformed by enlightenment. By being in the bush, it helps us to understand the possibility of something entirely different - how often do we say/hear "I wonder what it would be like to be an aboriginal here thousands of years ago".
Herein lies the radicalising power of the bush. It can help us to imagine, conceptualise an entirely different reality.

Personally, my first radicalised reaction to the bush was to adopt a kind of conservative environmentalism - "wouldn't it be great if we could transform our reality by living like that, off the land, between the trees, again". And I went some distance to trying to convert my own personal reality to reflect this ideal. I then realised that this goal, on a large scale, was much too simplistic and almost impossible for humans in their current state. The "living like that, off the land, between the trees, again" withered away. But what remained was a revolutionary kernel: "wouldn't it be great if we could transform our reality".

So, I'd argue that in regards to the bush, the binary opposition of escape vs transformation is not applicable. The bush is an "escape" that helps us to deal with "bad reality". But, at the same time, it has the potential to engender a kind of transformative thinking, a revolutionary mindset - it certainly did so for me. The fact that it can remain systemic while retaining subversive potential - that it can, to use a cliche, "fly under the radar" - gives it immense power as a weapon in the struggle to transform "bad reality".

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dialectic of "the bush"

The last post was an introduction of sorts. I finished it with an uncharacteristic thesis, one that showed some promise of being substantiated, verified, even empirically proven:
 Our ideas of "the bush" are not independent of these economic interests and this class struggle, as we who romanticise it would like to think, but are deeply fixed in the social structure.
What should logically follow is an incredibly detailed historical and sociological analysis which lays this struggle and these interests bare in order to deconstruct and demystify the ideology of "the bush". I will not offer that here - it deserves so much more time, research and effort than I can currently give it. I'll shove this project into the back corner of my mind, adding bits and pieces and layers to it as I read and study more.

Instead, I'll just make a rather obvious philosophical argument.

What is the "Dialectic"? I barely understand this philosophical concept, even on a reasonably basic level. In fact, I'm incredibly hesitant in appropriating the term for fear of misappropriating it. But if I outline what I do understand by the "Dialectic" first of all (in one of its many uses), there is no chance that I will misunderstand my own personal understanding of the term:
Thesis MEDIATED BY antithesis EQUALS synthesis.
You have a point, an argument (thesis). Someone comes along and points out its flaws (antithesis). As a result of this, you change the argument, and it becomes the synthesis. But that is just an example. Many philosophers (Marx, Hegel, even Monstesquieu [see Politics and History by Louis Althusser] etc...) conceive of the development of history as a kind of dialectic (in a slightly different manner), and the concept has been used to analyse many phenomena.

So how does my simple understanding of dialectics help us to understand how our idealistic idea of the bush is an ideological one, that is, how it "allows...society to persist, even though the essence of that society may contain contradictions (Aviles)"?

Let me start with a little story (that I wrote for the purpose of illustrating my answer to this question):

A prisoner in solitary confinement says to a guard on the other side of a small slot in the door: "Please, I can't bear this cell anymore, let me escape."
The guard glances around momentarily and then leans in to the iron stucture..."Well, ok, but only for a short while."
The guard hesitantly creaks open the door, and the prisoner makes his way forward. He peers around the corner, into the narrow passage-way, and sees a pile of bricks and a cement mixer.
The prisoner steps through the verge but immediately, the guard shoves a trowel into his hand:
"You have twenty minutes, get to work."

The prisoner grins, and starts to frantically lay down bricks. The air in the corridor is so much purer, and the lighting so much softer. Hell, he can even see the clouds pass by through a small window at its end! And the brick-laying...It's so absorbing, so satisfying, so fun! What an amazing escape.
Before he knows it, his little wall is two-bricks high and spans the width of the doorway. As the guard approaches him again from the other end of the corridor, he wipes the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand. He takes a deep breath and sighs contentedly as he is hustled over the small rampart and back into his dark corner of the prison. As the door slams shut, he begins to look forward to tomorrow, when he will get the chance to
escape again, to build his little wall a couple of bricks higher.

Many of us treat the bush as an "escape". An escape from the dense, smokey city to the clean air of the gum-riddled forest. An escape from our jobs and the anxiety that comes with them to a simpler, more immediately gratifying activity - running, hiking, climbing, swimming, sitting. An escape from any aspect of our lives with which we aren't entirely content to a beautiful, serene and natural paradise. But the word "escape" is misused. "Escape" implies some sort of permanent fleeing [the Spanish word "Huir" felt more appropriate here, but I couldn't find an adequate translation], it is an action made with no intention of returning. A prisoner escapes from the prison. They may turn themselves in eventually, but at the time of the escape, they have no intention of going back - hence the fact that they are chased by the police.

We, on the other hand, escape from our prison knowing that we will return of our own will and that when we do return, the prison will be more bearable. We escape from our everyday existence, from the social structures of advanced capitalism, into the bush - to run, to walk, to climb, to look at birds, or just to sit - with the knowledge that when we return, we will be slightly more satisfied, calm, serene. That is:
The unsatisfied human experience of capitalism, our lives (thesis) MEDIATED BY our satisfying activities, [in] the beautiful bush (antithesis) EQUALS a more bearable, less unsatisfied, human experience of capitalism (synthesis).
 This is the Dialectic of "the bush". And it is plainly simple that a less unsatisfied human is less likely to be a dissident, an insurgent, a revolutionary. A less unsatisfied human is less likely to overturn the system which produces the dissatisfaction and more likely to adhere to its rules and demands. In this way, the dialectic of "the bush" functions to the advantage of advanced capitalism.

Our "escape" to the bush simply lays the bricks on front of our cell door.

I might just finish with a tangible example to help prove the existence of this dialectic. Dropping rubbish in National Parks is strictly forbidden and has an incredibly negative social value. For example, if you are found to have dropped rubbish while running any of the Glasshouse series trail races, you will be banned from the races for life - well, according to the race website at least. But the forests of the Glasshouse region are littered with disused couches, fridges, even cars. The majority of the forests themselves are populated by pines, organised in endless uniform rows for the purposes of logging. As I walk along the wide, vehicle-hewn fire-trails between the trees standing in a formation only occasionally broken by disused furniture, I barely feel like I've "escaped" the city. It is, to some extent, unpleasant, not serene, not satisfying. This can be contrasted to, say, Mount Barney National Park. This is a "wilderness" area and there are strict rules in place to keep it that way (no fires, no pets, no short-cutting, etc...). Because of this, it can remain incredibly beautiful, and because it remains beautiful, being in this park makes me a lot feel a lot more satisfied, serene, etc... than being in the Glasshouse area. By preserving the beauty of the bush, the rules against littering in it, and those against "uglifying" it in general, preserve the antithesis (satisfying activities, [in] the beautiful bush) of our dialectic.

It's clear that a robust antithesis (i.e. beautiful bushland) is essential to the functioning of the dialectic: without it, the synthesis - a more bearable, less unsatisfied, human experience of capitalism, against which we are less likely to revolt - cannot be reached. This antithesis is supported by and supports our idealistic ideas of "the bush". They are constructed for the purpose of supporting this dialectic while being concurrently a product of it and are, as such, not absolute:
What do we think of "the bush" when we are bitten by a snake in it? We wish to escape it to get help. To escape our escape. And so the ideology breaks down.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Inventing "the bush"

I dropped my heavy pack and sat down just below the waterfall. To our left the loud, rocky stream twisted up through the hills to some tiny origin miles inland. Before us lay a field of smooth yellow stones, a sandy bank behind it, followed by a short band of crumbled cliffs. Rock pools interrupted the field, connected by rushing trickles which fled downstream at an impressive pace.

Nat and I munched on some mixed nuts and contemplated our surroundings. It was nice to escape the haunting structures of the city and throw ourselves into the expansive wilderness of Mount Barney National park. Unfortunately, the visual serenity of the rocks and trees and far-off peaks wasn't matched by the sounds of the leg-rubbing cicadas which hammered our ears and made conversation nearly impossible. The volume rose and fell at unpredictable intervals, frequently drowning out the gurgling stream. I was annoyed, frustrated by these insects intruding on our solemn paradise.

I slowly rose to my feet, hauled the pack over one shoulder and then the next, watching Nat do the same. We still had far to walk if we were to climb Bippoh Peak, but had all but surrendered that goal. As we hopped up the rocks and the cicada-noise fell, we started talking.

"What do you reckon we'd do if one of us got bitten by a snake?" I said.
"Not much, we didn't bring the EPIRB. The other one would have to climb to somewhere with phone reception", she replied.
"That's a bit of a scary thought".
I paused for a moment.
And then started again: "Well, it'd be better if you got bitten, cause I could carry you out".
"Gee thanks".

And just like that, a small reptile could convert our cliched 'escape' into a veritable prison. "Please rescue me, I need to escape back to the city!" And what if I was an aboriginal Australian who'd lived on the banks of the creek for my whole life? What would I think of the bush then?

I was shaken from my thoughts by a soft rumbling beneath my feet. I looked down, and the boulders that we were standing on were shaking in their places. Up ahead, the others were trembling too.
A huge BANG rang through the air and the colour began to fade from the hills which encircled us. Well, not the fading colour from the setting of the sun, but a draining removal like paint being poured down the sink. The wind picked up and hurried the pigment away, leaving the tops of the peaks completely blank. It was a nightmarish inverse of snow, rushing down the mountains from within and enveloping everything in its path. A desolating, inescapable whiteness.

In a few seconds, this emotionless plague had swept up our entire surroundings until even the stones on which we stood had lost their yellow. For a moment, all was quiet and calm, with only the blue sky above us suggesting that it might not be a dream. Then, invisible cicadas rubbed their legs together to deafening levels. The hills were melting.
The landscape was quickly losing its form, sinking into a flat mass. The sky became like one large cloud and slowly pushed itself into the ground below. They merged together, and nothing could be told from nothing in this white entirety.

Nat and I looked at eachother.
"Is this purgatory?" She asked, rather calmly.
I looked around for any trace of sensible matter outside our subjectivities.
"Well....Yes...I suppose so".


Thinking back on this curious incident now, I realise that we all have always been, are, and will always be in a kind of purgatory, only given form by our prejudices, concepts, images, the social structure in which we are truly captive.

What is this totality that we call "the bush". When we consider its individual elements - the one tree, the one rock, the slice of water - outside of this totality, it evaporates. The atoms exist. "The bush" - the ideas, concepts and feelings that are called to mind when we hear these words - does not.

It's like the dispute between the two fictional intellectual factions of the Victorian outback described in Gerald Murnane's The Plains. One group, who wore gold ribbons to denote their membership "wanted the people of the plains to see the landscape with other eyes; to recover the promise, mystery even of the plains as they might have appeared to someone with no other refuge...They were pledged to find grand themes in the weathered gold of their birthplace (2012 edition, pg. 32)". The 'old-golds' debated and sometimes even fought fiercely with the 'blue-greens', who "said they esteemed the land of their birth for the very reason that it seemed bounded continually by the blue-green veil [of the haze above the plains] that urged them to dream of a different plain (pg. 29)". The debate between the two groups obscures its essential genesis - it can take place because there is no true, solid essence of the plains which exists outside of human consciousness.

In this way, the fundamental thesis of the novel is buried in an explanation of a minor intellectual dispute within a different group - the 'Inner Australians':
Not long before the sudden collapse of the secret societies one man had dissociated himself from the minority of Inner Australians and had taken up the most extreme of all positions. He denied the existence of any nation with the name Australia. There was, he admitted, a certain legal fiction which plainsmen were sometimes required to observe. But the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men (pg. 44).
But who was encouraging, facilitating, financing this frivolous debating? In whose interests are the images and ideas made? It is the rich land-holders of the Murnane's plains, who employ countless artists, poets, historians, writers, and even filmmakers for the purposes of 'revealing' something about the plains. The protagonist of the novel, a man intending to make a film about the area, is taken into the home of one of these oligarchs, and ends up spending the rest of his life studying the plains without ever coming closer to his goal. Why? Because as Murnane suggests, its accomplishment is impossible.

I like to think that Murnane was inspired to write The Plains by reading Richard White's Inventing Australia. It's not impossible; the latter was published only two years before the former. Because what Murnane gives to Australian literature, White gives to Australian history.

While the prominent intellectuals of the surrounding years were arguing about how British, American (see Donald Horne's The Lucky Country) or completely independent Australians and their identity and culture were or should be, White provided a much more radical perspective - that the dominant ideas about 'Australia' and its people are invented to serve the interests of power groups and to repress the existence of classes.

In this way, White's thesis represents, as Zizek would say, a "traumatic kernel" in the discussion of Australian identity, as it  denies the assumption on which this identity is founded - that the Australian people, in their totality, can be described by a finite set of characteristics - and instead starts from a foundation of class struggle and broad (I'm talking word-wide) historical context.
(As a quick aside, the only thing that I felt was missing in White's analysis was an examination of the junction between images/identity and reality - for example to what extent has being told that they are like the British or Americans made some portion of the population more like the British or Americans?)

What I've been slowly pottering towards in this odd post is that Our ideas of "the bush" are not independent of these economic interests and this class struggle, as we who romanticise it would like to think, but are deeply fixed in the social structure. I don't know nearly enough about the history of Australia, and its current circumstances in order to exhaustively argue this thesis, but it offers a good starting point for future blog posts :-)