Overland 208

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 208, Spring 2012

There’s a lovely interplay among articles in this issue of Overland: one voice picks up a theme introduced by another and amplifies it or does something unexpected with it, disagreements emerge and remain unresolved, odd harmonies and counterpoints pop up. It’s like ideas music.

Longtime working journalist Jonathan Green predicts the imminent death of the quality newspaper. Responding to the commonplace that newspapers have to develop a new business model in the age of the internet, he writes:

In truth there never has been a business model for quality journalism, only a happy coincidence in papers like the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the New York Times in which a successful platform for the publishing of classified advertising coincided with newspaper owners who saw advantage, influence, power – and perhaps even a public duty – in fostering serious, thoughtful journalism.

‘The sad truth for journalists in a commercial construct,’ he argues, ‘is that their department is exclusively a cost. It produces no revenue … In the commercial mind, journalistic content is either the plaster between the ads or something tailored specifically at attracting them. … No one ever valued serious journalism enough to pay for it.’ He doesn’t put it this way, but he’s describing the way contradictions work in capitalism – in order to make a profit, the enterprise has to provide people with something they need, and ever since the mid 18th century some for-profit newspapers have on the one hand served the ideological and commercial needs of capital but on the other provided their readers with a significant record of events and a forum for discussion,with a huge potential for fostering resistance to capitalism.

Alex Mitchell’s ‘Fatal Obsessions‘, about aspects of Rupert Murdoch’s early years, amplifies one element of that story. Murdoch as a newspaper owner has certainly fostered serious, thoughtful journalism, but Mitchell describes how, even his early years, he rubbed shoulders with ‘bent coppers, crooked politicians and illegal gamblers’, and put some of them on staff. It’s clearly a case where the ‘quality’ bit of quality journalism is there at the whim of the owner.

The veteran Green has no sooner lamented the passing of what quality newspapers have provided – ‘a mature, moderated conversation that was broadly shared and thus to be reckoned with’ – and shaken his head at ‘our more fragmented, shriller public life’, than young New Yorker Malcolm Harris pipes up with ‘Twitterland‘, describing Twitter as a terrain rather than a tool, and then, getting down to cases, telling us approvingly how Twitter can be used to lie on an industrial scale, to shout down ideological enemies, to hide from the consequences of your actions and to unleash mob actions against individuals. That these things are done, in his examples, for in order to draw a crowd to an Occupy event, counter corrupt but sophisticated arguments, evade malicious prosecution and ward off a harasser appears to render them unproblematic in his view. In the context of Green’s article, it’s hard to share his complacency.

The proximity of Harris’s article to Green’s raises another interesting question: if it is indeed, as Green says, a ‘happy little accident’, a ‘weird conjunction of advertising and reporting that has managed to maintain a healthy fourth estate’, isn’t it another happy little accident that makes commercial enterprises like Twitter available as places where progressive forces can organise?

Another set of resonances is kicked off by Anwyn Crawford’s ‘Fat, Privilege and Resistance‘, a response to an article by Jennifer Lee in the previous issue. It’s brilliant, arguing that while Lee tellingly draws attention to fat oppression, she doesn’t take readers much beyond the act of recognition. In particular, Crawford introduces much-needed class analysis into the conversation. But it’s a different bit that fits my theme of serendipitous connections. Here’s Crawford taking issue with Lee’s argument that fat women should make themselves visible as a liberatory act:

Women – fat and thin – live with a particular kind of watchfulness, a sense of always being on display …

Perhaps we lack a word subtle enough for the condition that I described in [my essay ‘Permanent Daylight’, Overland 200] as ‘a deep and systemic psychic distress … of perpetual visibility’. If visibility is a condition of women’s oppression, then why should we keep demanding to be seen? If all the billboards across the world were replaced overnight, and fat women took the place of bone-thin models advertising underwear and perfume, would this constitute victory? I wouldn’t think so: I’m still being sold stuff, and someone else – another woman – is still being objectified for the purpose of selling it to me. To demand visibility is to submit to capitalism’s strictures: to accept that being an image is more important than being a subject; to accept representation in place of participation.

I’m sure there’s argument to be had there, but the phrase ‘representation in place of participation’ is cogent. And it casts a long shadow over the article ‘Outsider Porn‘, in which Matt Cornell argues, among other things, that ‘porn can be a powerful venue for self-expression, for asserting agency in a culture with narrow, constricting ideas of beauty, sexuality and gender expression’. If you are cut off from participation, then go for representation. I remain unconvinced of the liberatory value of porn. The connection to the debate about fat liberation becomes explicit:

One of the central critiques of pornography is that it objectifies women by reducing them to specific body parts. Yet this is what happens routinely to fat people who are photographed from the neck down for moralistic news stories on the obesity epidemic.

I’m sorry, this is just about as logical as the argument that feminists shouldn’t object to sexist abuse of women in public life if they don’t object with the same passion to male politicians being insulted: ‘You say this is oppressive. Well, that over there is oppressive too.’ I love it that Overland gives space for genuine, unresolved disagreement, publishing this porn-as-liberation article after issue 207’s ‘Porn and the misogyny emergency‘ debate, which was unanimous in seeing porn as degrading. I don’t know how the editorial team would feel about my quoting John Stuart Mill in support of their practice, but I dimly remembered a quote and found it by googling. It’s from On Freedom:

though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Then Juliana Qian’s personal essay ‘The Name and the Face‘ tackles the issue of visibility, objectification and agency from a whole other angle. She came to Australia from China as a child, one of a generation that ‘was promised equality after assimilation’. That promise was broken, and the essay ruminates on the kind of invisibility that comes from being stereotyped as an Asian/non-Indigenous person of colour, and the complexity that the stereotypes ignore:

I have a lot of stories. Most of them are not about tradition, nor about assimilation. Most of my life is not about tradition or assimilation. I grew up not between cultures, but within overlapping cultures that are themselves amorphous, contradictory and changeful.

The threads of connection reach into the fiction section, to Jannali Jones’s mock Kafkaesque ‘Blancamorphosis, in which cultures don’t so much overlap as weirdly implode: ‘Jon Dootson woke up in the morning to find he’d been transformed into a long, skinny white man.’

There’s more – it’s a bit of a bumper issue really, with a report on the Goulburn Valley Food Cooperative by Michael Green, a fable-ish (I’d say fabulous, but that means something different now) short story by Jennifer Mills, which has its own Kafkaesque quality, an elegant column on Jane Austen by Alison Croggon, and a swag of poems that, though they’re kept up the back on different coloured paper, do speak to the rest of the journal in many ways. This post has turned out to be far too long, so I’ll content myself with a couple of lines from Tim Thorne’s ‘Honesty‘ that touch on the theme of the quality newspaper:

When I was a teacher
the really smart kids saw through
‘Hard work brings rewards.’ But then,
I’ve always told lies for a living:
dole forms, poetry, I once wrote
a column for a Murdoch newspaper.

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