Philament Conference 15 April

Anyway. I went to the conference yesterday. The Politics and Aesthetics of Refusal. Went out last night. Suffering today.

Here is my conference report. As per usual this is entirely my own impression of the day (and night;). I should probably point out at this stage that the day was organised into ‘politics of refusal’ and ‘aesthetics of refusal’ streams. First session I attended was the politics stream, the second session was the aesthetics stream, third session was aesthetics, fourth politics. So beyond questions of subjectivity, my account can only cover half the conference. Also, I didn’t take notes, so it is all memory work. However, it is a long, long post!!

I had been up to 3am the previous night working on the non-places paper (just moving bits around and trying to get it right), and I was a bit worried that I was going to miss the start of the conference. So I set two alarms. Because no two clocks have the exact same time and, in fact, mine are out by a couple of minutes, it becomes a rather necessary annoyance that when you do inevitably get up on the first alarm, you need to turn the second alarm off as well. Otherwise it goes off while you are in the shower or making a coffee or something and it can be annoying to the neighbours. If you manage to turn the first alarm off in a hazey half-asleep groping slap in the dark without fully realising that you have just made yourself sleep in over time, the second alarm goes off and that would probably normally get you up. I have never needed the second alarm when I have set two alarms (it is weird!!), but when I used to work at Murrin with 7am starts 13 days a fortnight I did turn the alarm off without fully realising it. Hence, when I figured out what I was doing (blu-tack on the alarm off button): two alarms.

So I rocked up reasonably on time after getting a large take-away mocha from a joint on King St. I needed that caffeinated warm sugar drink. Sugar…

In the first session the first paper was presented by Ann Deslandes on what she argues is the process of ‘aesthetic reflexivity’ carried out by Autonomous activists. Like a mass feedback system, activists continually have to reappraise the situation to engage with whatever is being protested. The complicating factor in Autonomist activist practice is the refusal of heirarchical organisations. This produces problems in various scenarios from situations where groups need some form of representation, such as dealing with the media, to organising protests themselves and mobilising the necessary resources to carry out the protest. Ann sought to demonstrate one practical strategy for resolving this tension is to distribute acts of organisation/mobilisation differently than the decision making responsibilities. This means that those who are in charge of organising things are not the same people as those who make decisions.

On further reflection, this is an interesting way to resolve the fidelity-decisionist (Badiou) versus manifest-expressionist (Deleuze/Negri) split in theories of (Spinozian influenced) militancy/antagonism. Or some shit like that. I wasn’t too sure, from Ann’s paper, who did what exactly, but this is more of a practical problem for actual activists and not dudes listening to a paper about it!

Second paper in the session was Sandy, “On the Anti in Anti-Capitalism.” He got stuck into the rhetoric from anti-capitalist puritans within academia, particularly when movements, protests or actions are discoursed as not being ‘anti’ enough when those that make such pronouncements normally have little
exposure to ‘on the ground’ acts of resistance. His paper was funny and interesting as per usual. He also stuck the boot into Zizek, which was good fun! Yeah!

While everyone was waiting on the third speaker, Shane Haseman, to get organised (he was held up by a printing crisis and arrived just in time), I asked a question that tried to relate the two already delivered papers. Sandy thought I was being critical! On the contrary I thought I was asking a ‘gimme’ about drinking beer!! Exact question was: Is there a need for breaks from militant activism lest one becomes self-destructive?

Shane finally got his shit together and he gave his paper. It was on the connections between the Situationalist practice of the dérive and D&G’s
notion of smooth space. Shane’s paper was strictly historical in its scope as he sought to set out the connections between the historical practice of the dérive and D&G’s notion of smooth space. I had a particular interest in Shane’s paper as I had thought about how this connection could be useful for my thesis. Shane’s paper was in danger of appearing to be one-sided in its use of the ‘smooth space’ concept if it was aligned only with the (utopian) revolutionary practice of the Situationalists. D&G are explicit in ATP that a smooth space can be captured by a State apparatus for the sake of circulation. The example they give is of the practises of itinerant or ‘nomadic’ graziers versus the circuits of crop rotation developed for the land owning classes. One question in the session noted that Negri and Hardt have argued the concept of ‘smooth space’ can be extended to include the circulation of capital in the global market. Of course, I use the idea to think about the concept of the ‘road’. (Anti-cultural studies interests would probably start foaming at the mouth if I was to suggest we need to conceptualise the road rather than merely administrate it, haha…)

Then came the morning break. I finally got to talk to Kirsten Seale who had volunteered to read my ‘non-places’ paper. I later realised that Kirsten was the first person I had ever met that had solely met me through my blog, rather than in real life! It was totally weird! Yep… Regardless, it was a pleasure. Hi!

Second session. Aesthetics. First paper was delivered by Silvia Xavier on Claude McKay’s book Banjo. I knew absolutely nothing about what she was giving her paper on so I apologise if this seems hesitant! Silvia spoke about the negative aesthetic in Banjo in the context of Black politics and representation. What I found very interesting was a short section of her talk where she discussed the refusal of some Sengalese characters (???) in the story to give up their personal stories to a bourgeois Black man. The potential power of the story is at once acknowledged in the context of the politics of representation and refused at the same time.

Next up was Kirsten and her paper was on Iain Sinclair and the way he produces anti-commodity literary works. Kirsten argued that Sinclair’s work is written (constructed?) in such a way to render them unreadable. The anti-commodity form is produced through a negative aesthetic. Again, Sinclair is out of my orbit, so it was all new to me! Kirsten discussed the anti-commodity form of Sinclair’s work in the context of a production of play. Play is not the same as leisure, but it still has a principle of organisation or rules.

Will Noonan was up next with his paper on the Futurists Cookbook. I have read some of the Futurists stuff, mainly cause Marinetti was a hoon who not only liked driving fast, but derived an entire politco-aesthetic movement from a car crash! Noonan discussed the post-human anti-food nature of the Futurist’s aesthetic culinary creations. Negative aesthetic indeed!

Lunch. Sandy bailed as he was feeling tired. I chatted with various people, including some of the organisers. I told them I was very impressed with the conference. We also talked about the nature of the contemporary PhD and how difficult it is to get things like conferences and symposia organised.

Third session was on ‘popular refusal’. Ironic considering recent posts around the blogosphere (here and here, see the first one, it is really good!). One history of cultural studies can be located in a commitment for researching popular culture as a site of antagonism. Andrew Padgett’s paper engaged with some of this tradition through the work of Adorno and Attali. The second paper was from Caroline Hamilton and she looked at the 1990’s ‘indie’ phenomenon. I am grouping these two together as I noticed a similar thread in both. In different ways, both papers addressed the issue of whether or not ‘refusal’ within popular music is possible. What was interesting is that both shifted from the terrain of refusal as being something that engaged with broader cultural formations — either on an ‘ideological’ register, where the music represents some form of ideological refusal in the particular aesthetic (Hebdige), or ‘affectively’, where music serves as a catalyst for affective mobilisation (Grossberg). This shift was not explicitly staked out in the papers, but implicit in the focus on the organisational form of popular music. So instead of representing or affectuating broader antagonisms, the refusal was enacted against the commodifying and incorporating imperatives of the music industry itself. Andrew discussed this on a theoretical level engaging with the cultural industry argument of Adorno through Attali’s work on music/noise. Caroline discussed this through the example of ‘indie’ or ‘independent’ music, noting that ‘indie’ music is the only form of music that derives its name from its relation to the mode of production rather than the aesthetic form itself. I asked a question relating to this point and to say that the first time I saw Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’ film clip (one of Caroline’s examples) was from the one circulated with the Windows 95 CD-ROM!!!

Gwyn Symonds then gave a paper on Norma Khouri’s Forbidden Love. Gwyn discussed how the outcry over the relevation of Khouri’s hoax overlooked the role of racist undercurrents in the novel in its short-lived success. This got me thinking about the ways conservative governments tap into ressentiment with the contemporary and manipulate it so as to be re-elected, but without ever properly engaging with the problems that produce the situation in the first place.

Afternoon tea. I talked about the above with Gwyn, suggesting that someone might write a novel that worked in a similar way — a hoax that mobilised the affects of ressentiment — not for monetary gain, but as a way to draw attention to the ways conservative governments do this. The model I had in mind was the XRT road safety ad that looks and, importantly, feels like a new car ad, but in the final scene depicts a pedestrian getting run over by the car. Gwyn said that this would be a dangerous intervention as the experimental activist aspect of the book would be ignored by most pundits.

Last session! Rob Allison gave a talk on the uncanny aspects of Mark Danieleski’s explicitly po-mo work House of Leaves. Rob called it ‘literary alterity’. Most of this stuff went over my head, I am not a literary dude. Plus I was getting pretty knackered by this stage!

Yep, and it is now tomorrow (Sunday). Coffee! Sugar!

Craig Osmond gave a really interesting paper on alterity, notions of justice, revenge and faciality evident in Kill Bill. He was trying to work towards a different conception of justice that included the didactic relationship of care to the other. Justice is problematic as it always involves a third character. I am not sure what was happening with Kill Bill, but Craig related it to the notion of the Sovereign and a state of exception (I immediately got my gumby freak on and started thinking about Mad Max!). I didn’t see the connection between Kill Bill and Craig’s construction of justice (which is justice that doesn’t involve a thirding of the relationship with the Other?? not sure, or maybe it was how to think the Other in a relationship of care, rather than in a juridical punitive sense of revenge??). His paper was purely an experiment to see if it would be worth using Kill Bill to help teach his (criminology) students about different conceptions of justice.

Last paper on the day. Tim Roussos talked about the Tane Mahuta character in two of Witi Ihimaera’s novels. He discussed the tension between sexual identity and ethnicity or the identity shared with one’s tribe. I asked a totally dumb ass question, as I thought he had said that people excluded from their tribal identity because of their queer sexual identity made their own tribe. I understood this in a literal sense! So I asked a question about how they reproduce the ‘tribeness’ of a tribe with no history or familial linkage. Dumb ass!

It was all over and I was feeling a bit tired. So I bought a couple of beers on my way into Newtown, I gave Sandy a bell to see what was up, as I thought being woke up with a beer would be nice. He was off having department drinks at USyd. With some time to kill I just went home and freshened up. Came back and everyone was getting stuck into it. The dinner was held at the Bank Hotel and the cheapest thing on the menu were 4 shishkebab things for $18.90. In the spirit of the conference we (Shane, Sandy and I) refused to pay that much and had an anti-dinner of beer and other people’s left-overs. We stopped doing this after we found some rather large bugs in some rice that had been put off to one side.

Everyone was getting pretty raucous and fired-up. Earlier in the night there was a Melbourne/Sydney table split, which was weird! The Melbourne dudes were drinking red wine. haha. It was good mixing with people from English and Literary studies as it gets me out of my Cultural Studies comfort zone. The numbers eventually whittled down to about roughly a dozen. Plus I met some dude who said he was an anarchist, but operated from a rigid disciplinised conception of the academy (“I do anthropology!”). He was good value. Sandy also mentions him in his account of the night.

After the Bank things kind of fell apart a bit. I got a kebab. Sweet. Then we went from an aborted attempt to party on at the Town Hall to the Zanzi and that is when I went home.

Low points of the night. I didn’t get a game of pool in, which sucked deluxe. Plus I was refused entry at the very end of the night in to the Zanzi bar. The dude asked me if I had been drinking. I said, yes! He said, “Not tonight, mate.” Well, can you ask a more retarded question at 3:30am on a Friday night? Of course I had been been drinking! Next time I will tell the bouncer I had been doing lines, then we’ll see where we get. He was obviously scared that I was the same size as him hahaha!!! Fuckin bouncers.

But all in all I had fun. Met some new people, heard some cool papers and had some laughs.

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