Flocking and Shoaling: Culture at Large
Review of Ian Wedde, Making Ends Meet: Essays and Lectures 1992-2004 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005). First published in Journal of New Zealand Literature 23.2 (2005): 101-08
In this new collection of occasional talks and writing, Ian Wedde charts the shifts and turns of culture at large from 1992-2004. Wedde’s distinctive tack is a mode of address that accommodates the unruly, uncalculated and polysemic elements of a local culture at sea in a globalising decade. The titles of essays such as ‘The Nation’s Narratives: How Are You Placed’, ‘“Our Place”: the Place of the Collection’ or ‘Prospect: No Worries’ indicate central issues. But Wedde’s special strength, something less thematically predictable, and, I think, a poet’s or writer’s strength, is unpacking cultural metaphor: the desire for death by drowning, for instance, in ‘Lost at Sea: Drowning in New Zealand Literature’ (an ‘infantilism’), cultural forgetting in ‘Living in Time: A Day at the Footie’, or the thematics of the sublime in ‘Life Ho! The Maritime Sublime’. Wedde thinks through the lives and works of hermits and fabulists (‘Tracing Tony Fomison’; ‘Richard Killeen as History Painter: “Stories without Narratives”’) and the reality of public memory (the ‘Big Smoke’ aura of 60s Auckland in ‘The Atmospheric Pressure of Culture: Two Moments’). Bigger picture essays (think of metaphor as culture-pictures, giving culture pattern) are mixed with slighter, more personal and elegiac reflections (‘A Brief History of Derangement and Enterprise: Remembering Alan Brunton’), which pay tribute to the everyday or unheralded (an important critical act of recall). While the writing is often lyrical and moving, the analysis is critical and imaginative. ‘Beauty, Sex, Heroism’ entwines the metaphorics of Social Darwinism (‘the form-follows-function evolutionary goose-step of survival of the fittest’ ) with the progressivist ethos of locally embedded modernism.
An argument for the demotic and for fruitful exchanges between multiple cultures (academic, official, public, popular) sets the tone of this book. Taking to task the ‘governmentalising’ of culture, Wedde sets a productive, pluralistic excess against the timid, risk-averse, ‘grammatical prissiness’ of a ‘singular, national “cultural identity” and “cultural heritage”’— the result, for him, of a ‘culture that amasses as “identity”’and produces the ‘nationalizing weight’ of New Zealand and a ‘national “regime of truth”’ (125). The ‘reality’— always a word to worry about in New Zealand writing, a word which shores up worry — is on the contrary ‘complex, polysemic, inconclusive’ (143). Wedde dislikes ‘thematic dogmatism (national identity, cultural theory, narrative)’ (311), and prefers the difficult subjectivity of fallen or fragmented narratives (which he calls ‘allegories’); his book is ‘peppered’ with stories (127). A ‘third term’ of metaphor emerges (in ‘Complicit Objects, Duplicit Spaces: the Hyperreality of National Identity’) between the global and local, state and market, high culture and mass culture; and that is ‘an object without original, which seems nonetheless to have a reality’ (111), a chance or accidental configuration (‘destination unknown’, as OMC rap in ‘How Bizarre’) — a ‘surplus of meaning’ (118). So the rich freight of cargo-metaphor undoes the nationalized monad of ‘our place.’ I think there’s a fourth term, or historical tense, that shades the metaphor and underwrites the hyperreal, and that is the future indigenous, but Wedde’s borrowed theory is impervious here.
Wedde is good at being at sea: in a typical account of culture-in-the-ordinary he conceives Star Trek’s ‘deep space as a variation of the high seas’ (24) and his Dad’s 1950s no-nonsense, anglophile, Kiwi-masculinism in terms of the dour Scotty. Without the sure footing of one-nation culture-setting, without trying to stand upright here, Wedde addresses topics of public import in local space — topics which include what is ‘public’, what is ‘local’, and what is ‘space’. His capacity for precise description and an independent critical instinct merge to suggest ways into and around the ‘culture’ thing. The last essay on ‘Walking the Dog’ — an extraordinary mix of personal anecdote, wide reading and critical reflection — is uncategorisable; neither academic fish nor fictional fowl, yet beautifully woven, it illustrates the associative mode of elegant inquiry that is Wedde’s distinctive style.
Due to this book’s meditative or ruminative nature (Wedde chewing the cultural cud in ‘Living in Time: A Day at the Footie’), the writing is particularly important. It is sharp, lyrical, and funny; Wedde produces a vernacular bureaucratese, in self-critical keeping with cultural trends he is charting. So what happens when culture is conceived as ‘strategic result areas for the public sector’ (123)? Well, the ‘Silver Fern Nation’. That is, All Blacks, Tall Blacks, Black Caps, black SUVs (follow the fern) — a micro-managed, branded consciousness — fulfilling Nick Perry’s prophetic chapter in the Dominion of Signs, ‘Black to the Future.’ The national nausea of result-culture — the nausea of a culture quite literally at sea — feels like the swamping of an Americas Cup boat (a truly ‘black’ day in 2003) in which ‘our’ identity has been invested by cultural managers.
For an author deeply invested in public memory, and concerned about the institutionalising of culture, the culture created in and through archiving is a major theme (see ‘Making Ends Meet: Archives and Narratives’). Here, unlike a specialist academic book, what Wedde’s been doing is important. A leading cultural critic and commentator, anthologist, curator, catalogue writer, novelist and poet, Wedde worked for a decade at The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (from late 1993 to early 2004). His experience there during a large part of the writing of these essays, a period when the ‘cultural sector’ was adjusting to new pressures, local and global (making these ends meet), makes him almost uniquely well-positioned to comment on the cultural turn of the 90s — a period in which culture itself became immersed in the policy-making of national managers, or managers in making and shaping culture. For reasons that range from public and private investment in national branding, to the bankability of cultural heritage and the cachet of the burgeoning ‘creative’ industries, and even to national security (the importance of a strong identity), we are all keen to see 'our' culture on display. Few question so well as Wedde the orientation of culture, and its criticism, around display: that is, the cultural heritage of a new nation built upon — that is so much a product of — self-reenactment. A hollow country — and brittle criticism — results from a conception of identity, and the concern to secure it, drawn from its own staging. In a country much drawn to mediated simulations or virtualised display of nation and identity, Wedde's important difficulty is that he does not simulate cultural critique.
The problem of the critical intellectual looms here: how does one avoid the function of the national imperatives driving critical and cultural production just the same (witness self-critical death in the made-for-TV history series Frontier of Dreams)? Wedde is not a cheer-leader and not a nay-sayer. Given his experience of the business-end (‘result areas’) of cultural policy, he appreciates that culture is business (too); but Wedde is wise to national initiatives and the high-jack of criticism by professional and middleclass culture-profiteers. Yet he is equally alert to academic disdain of abundant, ephemeral popular culture (academics should appreciate that Te Papa, like Lord of the Rings, has given them lots to talk about). I can think of few intellectuals at large (we have very few) who don't obviously subject their work, consciously or not, to the ratings monster (‘our’ Godzilla is a giant Kiwi). Victoria University Press should be congratulated for publishing an author who subscribes to difficulty. A little country may have, or want, a lot of big country things (an airline, navy frigates, a supercar street-race, celebrities, a real porn industry, cultural studies etc); I think difficult thinking and writing ought to be among them.
The alternative is a truly provincial culture: the institutionalised for-Us culture and managed ‘creativity’ of government agencies and the broader culture industries. This ‘culture’, for Wedde, renders invisible ‘casual art’ — art that is ‘collaborative, quirky, conceptual’ (320), and that doesn’t’t add value to the national brand (Tony Fomison the cave-dweller, like an ancient cynic, is not obviously delivering ‘our stories, our songs, our selves’, as New ZealandonAir phrases culture). Something like his forced estrangement (‘fragments of identity grafted to a wrong host’ ) emerges in this book as an answer to Wedde’s question: ‘What is the alternative to a lumpen, a mass audience, that audience whose dying exemplar is the ratings-driven broadcast model?’ (78). Wedde artfully maintains a critical position between majoritarian for-Us history (the cultural heritage industry) and the off-ground academic (beholden to the national performance measures of the world-excellent university), by self-consciously shifting register: ‘I can see in action the process that transforms foundational histories into contemporary experiences for the leisure and education markets. I can range promiscuously across anecdote and theory, without worrying much about the shifts in register’ (73). And so he does. If the critique is not always sustained, given the occasional nature of the talk (turned-into-essay) form, the objects of it are always interesting.
Wedde touches on themes explored more narrowly by academic studies, but draws them, through event, story, and personal anecdote, into the demotic, lived space of ordinary culture (the content of this term is Wedde’s vexed subject throughout). Nor is the book's discussion limited to a specific theme or topic (say, New Zealand art, or poetry, or history, or popular culture). He shifts and turns, with full awareness of developments in the related fields of cultural and academic production, commercial sponsorship and cultural policy, drawing a fuller picture all the while of what’s going on in local cultural space (what is ‘New Zealand’ or ‘here’ is importantly suspended for questioning in the process). I’d call this superior critical picture ‘digital’ if Wedde’s own demolition of Leigh Davis’ privileging of the term, denoting the esoteric, abstract, out-of-the-world, had not made me wary of it (in ‘Beauty, Sex, Heroism’); Davis’s relegation of ‘analog’ poetics (249) — by contrast the obvious, the demotic, and in-the-world — reveals a familiar minimalist and masculinist local modernism (in Davis’s engorged prose Wedde discerns a ‘hard-on’ ). One can only hope that greater attention to popular cultural forms (reality television anyone?) will release the retarded grip of elite avantgardism on local cultural terrain.
The book shifts and turns via anecdote and analogy from the life of the author (he stops writing, he starts writing again) to culture of the moment. How then to describe the actual coherence of this collection in the absence of a predetermined structure? In ‘The Doco Flock: Truth and Narrative’ Wedde uses the terms 'flocking and shoaling' (147) to describe the 'crowd experience' of documentary space, a virtual convergence mapped by the remarkable computer model (Chris Reynolds’ ‘boids’) that brought us the Air New Zealand koru birds. Beyond the interactive history experiences of Te Papa, Wedde wonders if the gridlocked nationalist DNA — the double-helix of information and documentary — might yet be transformed by newer 'haptic' technologies (where software and hardware meet): nation and identity reconceived as a cusp formation of the ‘touch’ interface — a virtual history, perhaps, that is something more than settler docudrama.
1. Wedde’s previous collection is How to be Nowhere: Essays and Texts, 1971-1994 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995).
2. Wedde’s insight resonates strongly with American pragmatist Chauncey Wright’s objection to Social Darwinism as an illegitimate use of natural science. Darwin’s theory is one of natural selection and certainly did not, for Wright, imply that things were getting better, or the moral superiority of the ‘fittest’. A legacy of the non-Māori settlement of New Zealand is that social and natural processes are so commonly entwined that the one may easily be mistaken for the other. As I write this review, today’s large sport section headline in the New Zealand Herald (7.11.05), following another spectacular All Black victory, this time over Wales, reads ‘Evolution of the Fittest’. As against ‘evolutionism’, Wright takes from science a view of chance and ceaseless change, phrased, I think quite aptly for Wedde, in terms of ‘cosmical weather’, whose patterns no doubt depend on cause and effect, but which are yet so complex and multi-layered as to be effectively indeterminable See Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 207-114.
3. The Dominion of Signs: Television, Advertising and other New Zealand Fictions (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1994), 80-96. In Merata Mita’s documentary Hotere (Paradise films, 2001) on Ralph Hotere, one of Wedde’s subjects, Albert Wendt adds a dimension to black that I think is missing from the popular promotion of black as the national colour. He adds, as it were, black to black. Reflecting on Hotere’s dark paintings, Wendt says it occurred to him ‘that Ralph was restoring to the colour black, or to darkness, the Māori and Polynesian view of darkness as being the very fecund and fertile darkness out of which all life comes. Because it is a live creature, darkness, and when you see the light coming out of the darkness it’s even more bright. And more alive. Because the darkness itself is very alive’.
4. As Vijay Mishra, having sat through the Biculturalism and Multiculturalism conference in Christchurch in September 2005, told me, pointedly but somewhat sardonically, ‘You Pakeha have no critical edge.’
5. ‘The “nationalizing” DNA/algorithm’: ‘national-identity → mass (‘forgetful’) audience → long-term investment → overcapitalisation → resistance to revision → cultural gridlock → anachronism’ (63).
6. See Anke Finger’s introduction to Flusser’s The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003).