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Island Twenty - Isle of Pig-Swill and Phantasmagoric Objects

(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination)

Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights reserved. All short extracts from the texts discussed are acknowledged and used under fair usage related to review and theoretical critique under international copyright law. Image: Jrgen Habermas during a discussion in the Munich School of Philosophy, 2008. Photographer: Wolfram Huke. Creative commons attribution: Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part of a series drawn from the soon to be print published non-fiction book on experiential poetics entitled: Muse of the Long Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination

Island Twenty - Isle of Pig-Swill and Phantasmagoric Objects

It was a pig walking on his hind legs.1 Like many New Zealand fifteen years olds of the late 70s-early 80s I studied Animal Farm by George Orwell as part of my School Certificate year. It was one of the few pieces of writing from my high school years that still carries meaning for me today. At the time, of course, my brain was mostly absorbed with sport and pining after inaccessible girls, so it was a minor miracle that the theme of the book came through to me so vividly. Its no exaggeration to say that it probably represents a kind of foundation for my politicsa foundation independent, strangely enough, of any particular ideological position, though in most respects I consider myself a leftist. It was Animal Farm I returned to in 2007, as a kind of moral compass, after travelling through Vietnam with its nominally leftist communist government for the people. It is Animal Farm that Ive returned to repeatedly to understand my disappointment with traditional Labour governments in Australia, the UK and NZ over the past quarter century. Central to my politics is a fundamental dislike of authoritarianism. Like the Existentialists I am always suspicious of the group, herd, pack, the public and thus habitually distrust anyone who presumes to speak for these masses. As with the Freudians I believe that human beings are only partly in control of their psychic life and that many millions of us are prone to irrational projections on to others, if not from an eternal un-changing Id, certainly from an unconscious containing aggressive impulses, destructive lusts, and, if socialisation is traumatic enough, a triggered death instinct (on this I believe Fromm and Reich are most insightful). Unlike Freud I do believe that human beings also have the capacity to actualise a more empathic, loving and authentic selfi.e. as per Jungs self archetype and the true/real/authentic self of the humanistic psychologistsbut increasingly tend to see this self as a relational self. Excessive state-backed meddling, conditioning etc. of young people designed to turn out ideal citizens always fills me with an unease partially related to my Existential dread of people who seek to take away the decision making capacities of others and a Freudian dread associated with the fact that such meddling is usually done in the name of the persona (Jung) i.e. the ego and superego (Freud)and thus almost always privileges consciousness, rationality, logic over all the other faculties that are necessarily exercised if we are to remain relationally engaged human beings. Clearly then, the handing over of excessive power to any one group or, God forbid any, one individual in any situation represents a high anxiety situation for me. Clichd as it sounds, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or rather, power draws out of certain individuals domination and control impulses that would not otherwise be vented. The less access a powerful person has to his or her inner life and the more inhumane and bureaucratised the system or institution that the person has control over, the more dangerous the situation for others. Ive learnt to look at the actual actions and behaviours of people in group situations to assess the authoritarian-oppressive element rather than judge groups and leaders of groups according to their professed ideologies and beliefssometime there is a very great gap between professed beliefs and actual behavioursits this that interests and worries me, even in relation to certain nominally progressive groups. This ideology driven blindness was the great mistake of many 20th century leftists when looking at the Soviet version of communism, and it cost many lives.

George Orwell, Animal Farm, p.113.

After a particularly eloquent speech concerning social justice for all of the farm animals made by Snowball, a genuinely progressivist pig, Napoleon, the archetype of the totalitarian ruler, seeing a threat to his power base, decides to act:
By the time he had finished speaking, there was no doubt as to which way the vote would go. But just at this moment Napoleon stood up and, casting a peculiar sidelong look at Snowball, uttered a high-pitched whimper of a kind no on had ever heard him utter before. At this there was a terrible baying sound outside, and nine enormous dogs wearing brassstudded collars came bounding into the barn, They dashed straight for Snowball, who only sprang from his place just in time to escape their snapping jaws.2

Snowball is chased off the property and thus begins the rulership of the tyrant pigsa new dictatorship replaces the old. After Snowballs disappearance the animals gradually give away their hard-earned liberation and begin to serve the new oppressors:
Silent and terrified, the animals crept back into the barn. In a moment the dogs came bounding back. At first no one had been able to imagine where these creatures came from, but the problem was soon resolved: they were the puppies whom Napoleon had taken away from their mothers and reared privately.

A profoundly Freudian moment, and a lesson that there are always groups within any society prepared, for what ever reason, to do the dirty-work of bullying others, whether in parliament, corporations, prisons, the military, the police force, the judiciary, the media, religious institutions, welfare organizations, schools and education generally, etc. An actively sadist minority will engage in any and every oppressive activity permitted/demanded of it by the power elites of a societyand there are always plenty of thugs black-shirted or white-collared, prepared to join the ranks of the wielders of raw power. This fact is often forgotten by ordinary citizens in lazy democraciesuntil, that is, its them on the receiving end of human rights abuses. In a democracy the majority alone keep the power elites and the sadistic minority in check and a democracy is the sum of its institutional partsif the parts are riddled with forms of authoritarianism human rights abuses will always follow. Writers, artists and creative thinkers have an important job maintaining humane, nonoppressive communication systems within any society. Our job is to undo the mental straightjackets that oppressed individuals have been forcedor have optedto endure in order to get through their lives underneath the radar, as it were. In Animal Farm Napoleon acts early to repress free expressionafter the massacre of groups of rebel hens and pigs by Napoleons thugs, Squealera kind of hench-pigbans the singing of Beasts of England on Napoleons authority. The ban is symbolic since it was the motivating song for the original revolution against the humans. Interestingly, a yes-pig poet, Minimus, is given the job of composing a new song celebrating the deeds of Napoleon:
Thou watchest over all, Comrade Napoleon!

Others follow and the Seven Commandments of the original animal revolution are gradually

George Orwell, Animal Farm, p.48, Penguin, 1985.

alteredlanguage and public expressions of thought gradually come to serve the needs of Napoleons totalitarian regime. The Seventh Commandment, another core idea of the revolution changes to BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. I never forgot the lessons about suppression of freedom of speech coded into Animal Farm. I never wanted to be a Minimus-style of writer-poet, sucking up to oppressors. The book also taught me that writers and thinkers had to be careful, that oppressive regimes of all descriptions (left and right wing) subtle and less subtlerarely tolerate eloquent people capable of critiquing the system that serves them so well. In the modern world oppression is getting more subtle and systematisedfor example, we have a global economic system that apportions most of the swill to Westerners (recall Minimus described Napoleon as Lord of thy swill-bucket) whilst systematically starving vast segments of the rest of the human population. My brothers and I trace a political activist strain in the family to the twenties and thirties with my great-grandmother, Margaret Irvine. The history is quite vague, but in the family mythology, she is said to have assisted behind the scenes in the formation of the union movement and the Labour party in and around Glasgow, Scotland. It seems she was also a blue stocking (early feminist) whose shops went bust during the depression because she gave too much out on tick that could never be repaid by the struggling families around her. My Scottish aunts say that Margarets own children sometimes felt deprived because she tried to feed and clothe every bairn in the street that needed it. I had also acted out the family socialist tradition (at least on my Scottish side) in my teenage years. However, Id quickly become disenchanted with the socialism of the mainstream left in New Zealand and quietly opted out of the NZ Labour party in 1984 or so. I was in search, no doubt, of a politics based on some-kind of personal authenticityin this sense I was a wannabe hippy 10 years after the movement had been discreditedor neutralised. In truth I was becoming a Greenie-Feminist with a socialist attitude to wealth distribution and guided overall by existential principles. I was completely opposed fairly early on to Marxist authoritarianism with its authoritarian elites and mindless faith in science and industry as unambiguous harbingers of species progress. The political question, as I call it, never really left me, but during the late eighties and early nineties politics took a back seat to dealing with the personal crisis described in other chapters of this book. Besides Labour were in power in New Zealand and in Australia (when I arrived here in January of 1987). Even my return to university at La Trobe, Bendigo had been a more or less apolitical experience with conservatives running the humanities department and any discussion of Marxism, Feminism, Existentialism and Psychoanalysis discouraged. It wasnt until half way through my PhD, when I decided to study the German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas with long-term La Trobe social science lecture Gerry Gill, that a desire to reconnect with politics and social theory re-appearedthough in truth my poems, fiction and songs during that period often had political dimensions. Likewise, the transpersonal therapist Id become good friends with, Lionel Exell, was an avowed socialist among other things. The Marxism of my childhood underwent a radical revision in Gerrys small honours class (so small it was held in his office). We took an entire semester to study Habermass remarkable opusthe two part Theory of Communicative Action. It was a difficult subject but one of the most inspiring I undertook at La Trobethough I must have seemed a complete ignoramus to Gerry! I had to come to terms with many 19th and 20th century sociologists and

cultural theorists (and philosophical traditions) before I could even look at Habermass contributions to Critical Theory (otherwise known as Western Marxism). Much of the material I had to get up to speed with had not been covered in the humanities degrees Id completed partially because of the sensibilities of the humanities lecturers, and partially because at that time the program attempted to summarise three thousand years of Western history, philosophy and literature into 22 subject choicesthere wasnt much room for twentieth century thinkers! As I did the readings for Gerrys classstumbling, mumbling and fumbling my way through Habermass inordinately long sentences (it felt near impossible to keep track of the many supporting clauses that sprang like rhizomic appendages out of already complex primary clauses)I had a revelation that I was already a Western Marxist. Marcuse, a writer whose work on psychoanalysis and Marxism Id long admired, proved a useful link between the politically progressive psychoanalysis of Reich and Brown (as well as the foundational socialism Id imbibed from my family) and the more sophisticated socialism I was encountering in Gerrys class. Around the same time I also discovered Marxs so-called Paris Manuscripts of 1844 with their complex and subtle arguments about the various kinds of alienation experienced be people exposed to capitalism. The simple, almost propagandist, Marxism of my childhood, and the soulless, sloganistic and bureaucratised socialism of the Australian and New Zealand Labour Parties (New Left) gave way, after a period of reflection on the problem of oppression (and not just the oppression of workers), to a position that was (and still is) roughly speaking communitarianthough with transpersonal elements drawn from Stanislav Grof, and the mythopoetic Feminists. My entire political perspective changed and for the first time I had a personal model of politics capable of linking other kinds of social oppressioncolonialist, neo-conservative, patriarchal, parental, etc.to interior states of alienation (i.e. the chronic ennui states I was writing about in my PhD thesis). Thanks to Habermass postmodern socialism I had to catch up on thinkers as diverse as Althusser, Lukacs, Baudrillard, Horkhiemer, Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Jameson and Giddens among others. Their use of Max Webers theory of social disenchantmentdisenchantment due to bureaucratisation and historical processes of rationalisationproved particularly inspiring to me. Marxs discussion of the psychological experience of alienation, and the uses it had been put to by later Western Marxists, also fascinated me. The following famous passage in Marxs Paris Manuscripts of 1844 turned out to be central to my PhD:
... the object which labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as an alien thing, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made objective in a thing. It is the objectification of labour. The realisation of labour is its objectification. In the viewpoint of political economy this realisation of labour appears as the diminution of the worker, the objectification as the loss of and subservience to the object, and the appropriation as alienation [Entfremdung], as externalisation [entausserung].3

The alienation spawned by highly complex civilisations was not something Id seen critiqued well in foundation socialism. Likewise, the horrendous social realism of Soviet style Marxists

Marx, Alienated Labour, in Writings of the Young Marx (1967, p.289). See further comments on the same problem in 'Alienated Labor' in Josephson (1975, p. 96).

was severely critiqued for its anti-democratic tendencies among many Western Marxists. Given I increasingly saw myself as first and foremost a writer, I was well acquainted with the repressive activities of many Marxist governments when it came to silencing poets, writers and other intellectualsso this opposition to authoritarian Marxism among Western Marxists was refreshing. Close to the end of my thesis I was growing tired of my chosen topic. In many respects the narrowness and all-consuming intensity of the PhD research had stopped me from moving through the material quickly and on to other topics. One topic in particular began to interest me more and more as my studies came to a close. Early on I suspected that various forms of oppression were major contributors to peoples experiences of the chronic meaningless associated with morbid ennui. Oppression, however, being a social phenomenon, was more or less outside the subject area of the work. Although my own understanding of the causes of ennui, as outlined in The Angel of Luxury and Sadness, did imply a broad theory of oppression (i.e. it plotted the common features of the ennui experience across a variety of oppression experiences) and did include some (loose) theorising on postmodern ennui as a social phenomenon I felt dissatisfied with what Id written. It wasnt until I came across Mullalys book, Challenging Oppression, in 2002, that I felt I had a more solid foundation for understanding the link between individual neurosis and experiences of oppression. Mullalys insights went beyond certain narrow Neo-Freudian models and eventually led me to the Cultural-Relational psychology of the Stone Centre Group. In the process I graduated from the twentieth centurys obsession with individualist theories of the psyche to a relational model which held that we are our relationships (past and present, toxic and positive). Currently, I think that hyper-capitalism, information age bureaucratisation, desacralisation and patriarchy are the chief drivers leading to states of endemic disconnection and dehumanisation in both advanced industrial societies and societies affected by the West due to military and/or economic colonisation. In particular, like Australian writer and poet Susan Hawthorn in her book, Wild Politics, I believe that:
The dominating global ideology is one in which the rights of Capital take precedence over the rights of citizens and the nation states which represent the citizens needs.4

This understanding of the current situation has increasingly led me in the direction of a political poetic that acknowledges otherness, i.e. enters into relation with otherness (though I dislike the formulaic, PC tone to the term there is no other word that quite does the job) at deep structural levels. I would hope that this is achieved in non-oppressive ways. Most of my experimental writing these daysfor example my experiments in process poetryplay with the idea of allowing silenced and marginalised voices to literally take over aspects of my text or the remixed texts of oppressive politicians, corporate, etc. Similarly, my first novel, Dream-Dust Parasites, for all its flaws, was an attempt to bring a range of disparate strands of thinking (and experiencing) together into one creative whole. Western Marxisms nuanced critique of Neo-Conservatism and Neo-Liberalism is a prominent strand in the textthough many other obsessions, interests and influences are also evident. As one would expect given my studies at the time, the long tradition of writings on morbid ennui figure prominently. Mid-way through the thesis I realised that if capitalist oppression can make the objects

Susan Hawthorn, Wild Politics, p.132, 2002.

workers produce stare back at them with malign energy, perhaps other kinds of oppression do something similaruntil the oppressed persons entire psychic life is perhaps cluttered with malign objects (phenomena) that speak only of his or her submission to the will of others bosses, parents, church leaders, educators, politicians, etc. Household objects might do the same for a woman trapped in a loveless marriage and oppressed by outdated patriarchal relational models. The same might be the case for other minority groups facing prejudice and social ostracism due to disability, skin colour or sexual orientation. The idea that oppression robs the victims world of life energy is, to me, the truly terrifying insight of Marxs early manuscripts, and of course it was taken up in various ways by Western Marxists, Feminists and some Postmodernists. From the perspective of socially engaged writers and artists the question might become: how do we avoid producing art or literary objects (products?) that will eventually stare back at us as malign things stuffed full of our alienated creative energies? In other words how do we avoid having our words, as writers, converted into signifiers of our suffering, or our refusal to acknowledge the suffering of others? How also, do we resist being co-opted by hyper-capitalist, neo-liberal publishing, media, etc. institutions? Though some theorists in ivory towers argue we have moved on from alienation theory with its talk of opiate institutions like commercial television etc. I personally see no reduction in the numbers of people addicted to oppressiondrugging social institutions like consumerism, the mass media, gambling, etc. and it remains accurate to argue that many people still live lives of diversion and flight from self. The L=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poets took this problem seriously (influenced by both postmodern and Western Marxist thinking) and believed that words can oppress, can become malign phenomena feeding the alienated condition of writer and reader alike. Gerry Gills class on Habermass monster book The Theory of Communicative Action was a profoundly important experience for me since it allowed me to simultaneously reconnect with and up-date my own inherited socialist principles. It also set me thinking about possible creative responses to the many forms of economic oppression unleashed by the triumph of the New Right globally after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1990s. If anything the ideas of Western Marxists like Habermas are more relevant today that they were back in the mid1990s. Privatisation of public infrastructure, including community knowledge infrastructure inevitably leads directly to de-democratisation in a society generally, and powerlessness and the sense of being oppressed among societies increasing numbers of losers. Neo-Liberalism is ultimately authoritarian since oligarchies and monopolies (governed by plutocrats) inevitably push for greater and greater power through their wealth. Wealth transfer from the already dispossessed to the super wealthy has accelerated here in Australia and elsewhere since the mid1990s, despite the global economic crisis of recent years. For me the (almost imbecilic) link between Von Hayeks economic and social theory (promoted with fundamentalist enthusiasm by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) and outdated Darwinian theories of evolution (in turn based upon outdated models of physics) is now the greatest threat to the survival of the human species on earth as we progress through the early decades of the twenty-first century. Writers, artists and creative thinkers need to engage with Western Marxist thinkers because they remain the key source of resistance to global processes of Neo-Liberal life-world colonisation.

Author Bio (as at May 2013)

Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), as well as in a number of Australian national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005 (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: Australian Edition, 2005. He is the author of three books and co-editor of three journals and currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.