Thursday, July 28, 2011

quick reminder

A quick reminder to Melbourne readers: Jeffrey Cohen, from In the Middle, will be giving a free public lecture tonight, called "Feeling Stone," in the Elisabeth Murdoch lecture theatre A, (the one behind the white plaster figures escaping from the wall of the Potter Gallery at the university of Melbourne in Swanston St), at 6.00 tonight.

It's utterly free, and will be utterly fabulous. Jeffrey has foregone a day at the zoo in the sunshine to work on the fine-tuning. Come and hear him speak and introduce yourself as a fellow-blooger in the reception afterwards.

Our vocabulary for stone is impoverished. We describe rock as dumb, mute, unfeeling, unyielding, recalcitrant. Stone can sometimes be invoked as a witness, but most often its testimony is silent,an unfeeling trigger to affect, a passive reminder of tragic human histories. This talk excavates a lithic counter-tradition: stone not simply as a spur to human emotion, but as a lively substance possessed of agency, motility, artistry, and possibly even a soul. Surveying work by medieval and
contemporary thinkers, from Albertus Magnus and Geoffrey of Monmouth to Gilles Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz and Roger Caillois, I argue that stone invites us to a nonanthropocentric approach of ecologies, landscapes, texts and art.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This is the most humble day of my life


[Thanks to Gio Abate for directing me to this wonderful image, from the Tumblr site of Eva Truffaut: check out the animated version.]

Last night, when I was supposed to be going to bed early, I stayed up, glued to my computer screen as the Murdochs appeared before the parliamentary inquiry into telephone hacking. James Murdoch tried to take control over proceedings and wanted to begin by reading a statement (like some AFL footballer whose drinking/gambling/racism/sexism has uncomfortably seen the light of day). This was refused, but he began his first answer with what was in fact the same statement, the first of many generalising, filibustering remarks that have correctly been analysed as carefully orchestrated and rehearsed spin. At one point Rupert leaned in, touched his arm, and said he just wanted to say one sentence: "This is the most humble day of my life."

As many commentators have pointed out, he didn't really look humble, though.

As I am reading my way into the history of emotions project, and think about the question of performance, such statements become increasingly difficult to analyse. For historical researchers, the naming of words like 'humble' or 'humiliation' or 'shame' can seem like the gold standard of emotional expression, especially in non-literary contexts. We have a detailed context, and an unequivocal statement of feeling that is pretty rare in pre-modern contexts. But Murdoch's carefully prepared sound grab shows there are rich layers in such expressions, and I don't think they are entirely a function of saturation media coverage or a self-conscious modernity.

Murdoch didn't look humble, but was he? He said he was. Why isn't that enough? Do we need to see more of a downward gaze, a lowered voice? Wouldn't we just say he had scripted that, too? How can we ever judge the truth of a person's statements about their emotional state? If he does not seem sufficiently emotional, what differentiates our response here from the judgemental condemnation of Joanne Leys and Lindy Chamberlain for not seeming emotional enough when they were questioned about the death of their partner or child? What normative expression of emotion are we invoking, or looking for, here?

Other questions arise: what's the relation between word and feeling? Words are switched on and off, just as the acted performance of emotions and feelings can be, too.

But need there be a watertight correlation between the emotion we seem to see and the signifier we hear?

While it's easy to think that Murdoch's statement indicates merely the switching on and off of the emotion, how could we ever judge whether he's truly humble: whether he feels it truly, in his heart of hearts, or whether he only believes he does, or whether he is simply lying. There is also something performative about this, in any case. For someone like Murdoch, even saying the day is a "humble" one, no matter what he feels, is a performance of being humbled. Having to say it, whether he feels it or not, must surely produce at least the simulation of being humbled. And it's a humbling thing to do: that is, saying you're humbled is to humble yourself, no? And in the end, how could we ever tell the difference?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Human voices

It's a cold Saturday morning, at the end of the school holidays. As arranged, Joel brings me a strong cup of coffee at 7.15. We climb into the car. Its newly fixed thermostat registers 2 degrees. We pick up Meg, then head into the city and down Punt Road. The sky is pale but clear, and we see three hot air balloons in perfect triangular formation flying low across Parkville.

We are heading to a three-day music teachers' conference, being held at Melbourne High School. We arrive with plenty of time to spare, and sit in the car, marvelling at the school's enormous playing field, and the tall gothic brick tower of the main building. Our school is made of grey concrete blocks, doesn't have its own oval or gardens, really, and the kids use the public park a block away. This feels like a private school, though it's Melbourne's only selective boys' high school. Two different balloons are flying low towards us, and seem to skim past a block of flats on the other side of the oval.

The vocal group meets with Miriam in the foyer, surrounded by glass cabinets full of trophies, wooden honour boards, and memorials to the fallen. As they prepare, I walk into the main hall. A young girl is practising a violin solo with piano accompaniment. She plays with great accuracy and skill, but is still warming up to full performance mode. It is not yet 9.00 am.

Our kids rehearse. They are wearing their usual medley of clothes, supposedly in performance blacks and greys, but interpreting the colour code very loosely. They look a little withdrawn and distanced, standing apart from each other. Miriam checks their cues, the sound engineer jumps athletically up on to the stage several times as he checks levels, and adjusts their mike. They run through most of their set, just going over a few tricky entries. One of the girls can't be there, so Claudia steps in for her solo.

The conference begins, and our group is on first, as a kind of warm-up to the day's proceedings. The girls have brushed their hair, and everyone has taken off at least one outer garment. They walk on to the stage and Miriam announces the first song, modestly not mentioning that this group came second in a national jazz competition not too long ago.

I realise, at this point, that the battery on my phone is about to run out. I am sitting with Susie's mother in the front row, and the angle is all wrong, as I can't get all seven in the one frame and am looking up at them. So I record just the two middle songs from their bracket of four: "Sometimes I'm Happy" by King Pleasure, and "Rachel", by Trish Delaney-Brown. They sing well today, very well. They stand close together, and sing accurately in key and in time, which is hard when the piano is so far away, and of course, even harder when they sing a capella, and with no conductor. No one "sings out" (i.e. making their voice stand out from the group), but the parts and words are distinct. The solos work well, too. Claudia, Mary and Joel just step up to the mike and sing without fuss. "Rachel" is a show-stopper.

The music teachers in the audience — that's a tough crowd for kids to sing for — are warm in their applause, and the other parents and I follow the kids out in to the foyer. Miriam does a quick debrief, and the group breaks up with hugs and congratulations all round. I have been struck, as always, by the authority and confidence of this group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, and the serious intent with which they sing, and sing with each other, listening so hard to each other. They don't all hang out together as friends. They are in different year groups and subject clusters. But when they sing together, there is often a great warmth and strength about their voices in harmony. Joel and Meg explain to me later how they have literally learned to breathe together, so they can all start phrases in the same second. The other parents and I have confessed we regularly cry when we hear them: it is the terribly beauty of their vulnerability and the fearful power of their strength, brought together by a wonderful teacher who guides them with skill and passion.

Marion and I take Susie, Meg and Joel to brunch in Richmond: Dench fruit toast with maple and vanilla butter at Richmond Larder, sitting outside in the sun. Then I drop Joel and Meg off in the city, and watch them head down Bourke St on their different expeditions. A good morning's work...



Double-click on these to get the full screen view which will show you the seven singers.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The lifecycle of a keynote (or, The Great Bloggy Meet-up)

First comes the invitation. If the organisers are good organisers, they give you plenty of time, freedom to speak on whatever you want, and are crystal clear about what kind of event it is, and what kind of funding they will provide.

Then a year or so goes by and the lecture then starts to hove into view. You might have to provide an abstract around this time. Then your ticket is booked, and after that there is no going back.

You start to blog about it, perhaps, or allude to it on facebook. Then, when you really should be buying a new pair of shoes to wear, you throw together a first draft, phrase by phrase, partial footnote by partial footnote. You think about the long plane ride on which you'll be able to finish the talk, while thinking consoling thoughts about how you'll polish it up when it's time to send it off to be published.

All of a sudden, you are standing there while they introduce you, and there really is no going back.

As you give the talk, you're conscious of a terrible silence. They are probably just being politely attentive, but the effect is to make you conscious of every half-baked idea you ever had.

Afterwards, everyone is very kind. They say nice things.

You go home, and try to forget about it till it is time to send off the published version, when you race around trying to finish off those footnotes and pressing "Send" with a great sense of relief.

As I did two days ago.

At the moment, I am preparing for a conference at Melbourne — http://hearts-and-stones.arts.unimelb.edu.au/ (That is actually a link, though the colours have gone a bit odd on this template.) This is a small symposium on stone, emotion and temporality. Speakers will meditate on our emotional relationship with stone, whether in the form of rock art, memorials, buildings, art, landscape, etc. etc., with a particular focus on the way stone bears witness to, carries a sense of time and cultural and natural memory.

I am in the luxurious position of not having given myself a paper to give. I'll chair, and convene, and try to bring a bunch of people together who aren't normally part of the same circuit. Some are medievalists, some are modernists, some are Australianists, and some specialists in Indigenous studies. It is almost a dream come true, for me, to bring this company together.

Readers of this blog will be happy to know, I hope, that two of its most loyal readers and commentators, Jeffrey and Kerryn, will both be at this conference. Jeffrey will be opening proceedings on Thursday night with a public lecture (his own dreaded keynote which I gather he is planning to write on the plane): "Feeling Stone", July 28th, 6.00, Elisabeth Murdoch Lecture Theatre, Parkville Campus. And Kerryn will be closing the symposium proper with a ghost story (she is visiting a cemetery tomorrow as part of her research). Jeffrey's lecture is open to all, and is free. Kerryn's will close the symposium. You can register for that, too, though places will be a little restricted at the conference.

I can hardly wait for these two to meet each other. I don't know if they are friends on facebook, though they certainly ought to be. It will be a wonderful meeting of bloggy minds, and I hope that the pleasures of that meeting — how could they not love each other? — will distract them from the anxiety of their talks...


Here is Jeffrey's abstract:

Our vocabulary for stone is impoverished. We describe rock as dumb, mute, unfeeling, unyielding, recalcitrant. Stone can sometimes be invoked as a witness, but most often its testimony is silent,an unfeeling trigger to affect, a passive reminder of tragic human histories. This talk excavates a lithic counter-tradition: stone not simply as a spur to human emotion, but as a lively substance possessed of agency, motility, artistry, and possibly even a soul. Surveying work by medieval and contemporary thinkers, from Albertus Magnus and Geoffrey of Monmouth to Gilles Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz and Roger Caillois, I argue that stone invites us to a
nonanthropocentric approach of ecologies, landscapes, texts and art.


Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI) at the George Washington University.

Here comes the sun

Twice a year, there is a period of a few weeks when the sun appears above our neighbour's roof, but lower than the eaves over my study windows. When there are no clouds, it can be bright enough for me to lower the blinds on the window.

Today is the first day I've noticed this effect since autumn. The sun's a bit pale and weak, and the sky looks a bit anaemic, but I can see the shadow of my own head on the floorboards.

So, we are past the winter solstice; the coldest average day of the year is past, too.

Bring on spring.

Not that I'm hastening my life away, you understand. If anything, I'm trying to slow it down, just to feel that sun on my face.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Orange mousie!

The kittens have a favourite toy: an orange mouse with catnip inside that makes a very intriguing rattling sound when you skid it along the floorboards, even though someone bit off its tail on the way home from the vet a few weeks ago. I regularly have to scoop it out from under the couch, and there is then great joy and much scuffling to work out who will play first. They do take turns, there is no doubt. One rolls and chases and pretends to ignore, then pounces and sends it flying. The other waits and watches patiently. There must be an agreed time period after which it is fair game to move in.

This is such an excellent game that when they are prowling around and looking a bit distracted, if I can find the mouse then they entertain themselves for ages.

However, a new, less than welcome development this morning. Wulf has discovered that the very best place in the house to play this game is ... on my desk!


OK, back to work!