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Sunday, 28 January 2018

Vale, Kyung Un Kim


I was teaching this morning when I got a message telling me that my old friend Kyung had died. Kyung had been a big presence in my life during what I think were very dark years for both of us. We met in the midst of a mild bender in Manly, introduced by a mutual friend, and hit it off immediately. Back in those days, both Kyung and I were living on the ragged, bleeding edge of excess and self destruction, and one tragedy of his death is that I think the reason we hadn't seen each other in years was because together we tended to enable each other's bad behaviour. We seemed to be both going through a largely unspoken process of getting ourselves right, and I think we both knew we needed to be apart to get that done. It looks as if Kyung had pretty well got there, which makes his passing doubly unfair. And the other tragedy, this one for me alone, is that because of the way we interacted I don't believe anyone who loved him would ever wish to see my face, especially not at his funeral.

So this is my act of remembrance.

When I think of Kyung, what I mostly remember is his anger. He was furious – at his ethnicity, at everyone and everything that snubbed him for it, at all the world's injustice, the greed and mendacity of humanity, and at himself. I guess that's a big key to why we got along so well. I remember when we'd talk, solving the problems of the world, the incandescent rage and hatred which would flame in his eyes as his jaw muscles suddenly jumped out the side of his head, his fists and shoulders balled and rolled like he was preparing to physically rip evil from the world with his bare hands. I remember times when we'd be talking politics over a beer and staff would be shooting us concerned glances, edging towards us as if expecting a fight to erupt between us at any moment. And then suddenly we'd both stop, one of us (usually Kyung) would drop a gag and we'd be laughing like crazy donkeys and agreeing to disagree. I remember that laugh. It was a kind of high powered machine gun cackle, like his laughter was the steel capped emergency relief valve on a nuclear reactor gone critical. And I suppose it was.

Love, hate, fury, and laughter. These were the major components of Kyung as I knew him. He so hated evil and injustice. He was one of those rare – all too rare – people for whom the dichotomy of good and evil was a source of actual, physical distress. And his hatred of the perpetrators of evil and discrimination was an equally physical force. Everything about the way he reacted to the world was writ so large it was impossible not to see the immense love, generosity, and care for humanity which drove and animated him. And this wasn't confined to the abstract, either. He was a loyal, dependable, entertaining, and absolute friend. Kyung practiced total friendship in the way some nations practice total war. He would literally go several extra miles for anyone he counted as a friend. He never once failed me, and it is with bitter regret that I remember the times I failed him – failures I will now never be able to scrub out or repair. Kyung was the sort of friend you could call, tell him you were bored, and half an hour later he'd be at your front door with a case of beer, a cheeky grin, and a furious determination not to accept any money or thanks for either. Such a trivial example to illustrate such an enormous reservoir of generosity, kindness, and concern for the people in his life doesn't seem to do him justice, but it's the thing I remember most vividly.

I remember our long and heated political arguments, our twenty four hour gaming marathons, our weird and hectic night-time missions through empty, darkened streets, our clenched, angry existences seeming to be in tandem as we ate up the miles of road beneath our wheels. But I mostly remember laughing. Kyung loved to laugh, and not least of all at himself. For such a serious, intense soul, he was ever ready to laugh a great fat belly laugh at any or all of his own foibles. Another way in which his largeness of spirit outstripped my own. I remember Kyung as a man on fire, lit with profound, intense, and above all selfless concerns. A being constructed in proportions of greatness. I'll miss him, and I regret bitterly the failure of my half-thought plans to one day, older, wiser, and weirder, reconnect over a beer and laugh again about all the stupid, brilliant, and just plain hilarious stuff we'd done.

Vale, my friend. Sleep now, and be at peace.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Star Wars – You Are What You Eat


In spite of what the critics have been saying, I enjoyed the new Star Wars. Quite a few commentators panned it for being "meaningless", but without the eye of love and nostalgia, the level of meaning they expected was never an intended or actual part of the original franchise.

This made me think about the reverence in which we hold A New Hope and Empire. I first experienced these films when I was about six, and thought they were the most fantastic, unbelievably earth-shaking things I had ever seen. But then, I was six, and the list of things to which I attached the same value also included a random naked woman in some manga, my neighbour's dog, and the dead lizard behind my cupboard. In later life, I discovered that having seen these films made me a member of some kind of culture club which seemed mainly concerned with casting those who had not into social outer darkness. This was in my teens - that era of insane crushes, obsessions, and psychological cruelty. We would watch these films over and over again, reassuring ourselves and each other that they were the apogee of human creation. This reassurance became shriller and more urgent, of course, as repeated viewings exposed the real, significant, and manifold flaws of both films. They drag. They're heavily derivative. The acting is, in places, ridiculously bad.

A fair bit of my time in particular was spent desperately trying to ignore what thematic messaging there was. The franchise as a whole has a starkly conservative and practically mindless world view. The magical 'Force', a kind of re-chewed and regurgitated compound of poorly understood Zen mysticism and Protestantism is actually kind of toxic. It's deism. Or animism. Or maybe panpsychism, or spiritualism - it's really too vague and changeable to be clear about exactly what it is, but in any event it is clearly the element of the divine. So, this story element panegyrises adherence to ancient religion. We have The Empire, and The Rebel Alliance, with The Empire being evil apparently because it's an empire and for no other discernable reason. And the rebellion is in support of a dying or dead republic. Hmmm... a republic struggling to overthrow an empire - sounds strangely familiar. It's almost as if some Americans were re-imagining their own revolution, interleaving it with the history of Rome and painting it all over with a thin veneer of science fiction. With magic. And god. So the idea is that it's important to be a republic and, if we look at the way the two forces are represented, the more uniform, organised, and well equipped you are, the more evil. And then there's the basically moronic binary imagining of morality represented by the dark side and the force. The dark side is all negative emotions, which must be defeated - repressed, basically - whereas the not dark side is all about floating rocks and pashing your sister. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but the silliness of the binarism is still real.

For me, the message is one of subservience to god and a near libertarian conception of how the world should be run. This is totally unacceptable to me on both counts, and yet I spent quite a lot of mental energy on convincing myself that it wasn't so, and that these two films were the best sci fi films ever made, despite the fact that they're not really sci fi, and nor are they really good enough to justify such an assessment. It's rather like my first girlfriend. She was a nice girl, I assume (I never really knew her that well), but she certainly wasn't the paragon of all girlhood I furiously persuaded myself that she was. If I'm completely honest, she's not the one I wanted, but rather just the one I happened to get. And because she was my first, she blew my head back by relative power alone, and I spent the rest of my time with her trying to convince myself she was the best female ever begotten. Until, that is, I grew up a little and was able to see her clearly.

And it's the same thing with Star Wars. When I look at it clearly, A New Hope is a very good film. It's got so much to like, it's still enjoyable decades later, and it was clearly made with real love and care. But what it's not is a film objectively worthy of the reverence in which it's held. And it's this clear-sightedness which I think is most important. We're not just made up of what we consume, but also of the way in which we consume it. The way we respond to and absorb things like films also ripples out into the way we process the rest of our lives. The way we convince ourselves that Star Wars is the kind of masterpiece it's clearly not is exactly the same way we convince ourselves we like our jobs, can live with our partners, like our foolish and mendacious selves, and have some hope of finding meaning in our lives. We can find jobs we like, partners we love, meaning, and all the rest, but not without shedding the kind of thinking that has us desperately trying to convince ourselves that Star Wars is more than it is. Because it's this exact same thinking which, if we don't consciously attack it, we use to negotiate ourselves into accepting our own mediocrity.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Australia Day, Race, And Arguments From Non-Existence




It's Australia Day tomorrow, and the usual arguments about nationalism, the plight of the First Nations, racism, multiculturalism, and so on, are starting to warm up. I think we're all too familiar with the arguments on all sides of this often toxic and rarely productive area of discourse. Don't get me wrong - I'm not one of the Barnaby/Abbott brigade. I think it's not only appropriate but desirable, on a day meant to celebrate nationhood, to think about and discuss exactly what it means to be Australian. And I think that no such conversation can possibly be complete without considering both the miraculous prosperity of our weird little colonial project in the middle of nowhere, the horrific cost to some at which this prosperity was purchased, and everything in between.

But it's in the area of 'Australian-hood' where I think some better and clearer thinking can and should be applied. I believe that one of the reasons so many of these discussions are either distasteful or uncontrollably acrimonious is because they start from the hazy starting point of a purely instinctive and unipolar idea of nationhood. While the exact constituent elements of the concept of nationhood are debatable, it's probably not too controversial to say that the most common understanding of the term includes elements of culture, political/legal constructs, geography, and identity. Where discussions of Australian nationhood tend to spin out of control is in the areas of culture and identity.

I would argue that the vast majority of people tend to conflate individual with national or cultural identity. This is both natural and (usually) benign, but where nationalism comes into play the effects can be decidedly toxic. When we fail to distinguish the broad national ethno-cultural picture from our own culture and ethnicity, then change, dominance/growth/attrition of one sub-group or another, or any questioning or assertion of the broader national culture is perceived as a personal, existential threat to identity. A prime example of this confused and confusing kind of thinking is Pauline Hanson's inability to understand changes in Australian demographics as a phenomenon distinct from the survival of her own individual identity. What this generally creates is a furious argument over the protection or destruction of a weird national/personal hybrid territory which does not actually exist in any meaningful way.

Added to this is the vexed question of cultural memory. Australia is still very much in its formative stages, and is therefore replete with aggressively propagated myths of origin and character. I personally find that the school of thought which suggests that inherited cultural values and memory are compelling because of the fact of their being inherited is one which resonates with my own individual experience. For both native and immigrant Australians, the embrace of shared cultural memories definitive of national identity is practically universal, and these memories end up forming a major pillar of both our private and corporate identities, and one which we will all fiercely and instinctively defend. Where many problems arise is when these inherited cultural memories are not shared by all. The cultural memories of many Indigenous Australians and, to a significantly lesser extent, recent immigrants, are still very much alien to the predominant pillars of Australian cultural memory. Invasion, The Stolen Generation, White Australia, and other less than edifying episodes in our past are often aggressively excluded by defenders of conservative views of our nation from celebrations or commemorations of our nationhood.

This isn't just a matter of national conscience, to be dismissed as self flagellating black armband thinking - it speaks to the actual fabric of the nation. I agree with Bernard Yak's assessment of nationalism, where he proposes that a major part of being a nation is the "territorialisation of memory". Mnemo-narratives like Gallipoli or The Gold Rush are cut off from their global context and annexed as the sovereign culturo-historical property of Australia. The result of this is that a particular set of inherited or shared cultural memories can then be taken to define who is and isn't Australian. Where serious problems arise is when any attempt is made to exclude valid cultural memories from this sovereign mnemo-territory - such an act is, in effect, an attempt to culturally deport those who hold and value those memories. A good but extreme example of this is Germany's decades long endeavour to excise fascism from the current identity matrix of what it is to be German.

For us, it seems that there is a tendency to attempt a similar act of deportation around issues of race and Colonialism. And upon examining the (usually conservative) arguments for doing so, it becomes apparent that there is no better justification for this than a desire to put a stop to the uncomfortable feelings this raises amongst those who, like Pauline Hanson, are either unable or unwilling to disambiguate the nexus of national culture and personal identity. I'd argue that in order to sustain and build on the unusually successful pluralism we have already built, we all need to establish more firmly in our minds what it means to be an Australian. Nuanced, non-binary, and most importantly, inclusive models for building shared and inherited memories and values need to be built at an individual as well as an institutional level.

Change the date, or don't - the issue isn't, in absolute terms, all that important. But as a young nation, still consciously in control of building our national identity, we have absolutely no excuse for weaving intellectually muddled, mendacious, and cowardly lies of omission into our DNA merely in order to spare some of our feelings.