Books, Fiction, News & Commentary, Non-Fiction

Writers and artists — your personal pain is not a blow for justice

| |

There is this popular idea that all writing is autobiographical; that any text will always produce evidence of its author. Some readers understand this explicitly and even write about it in books. Much more commonly, the idea is implicit. And, if you don’t believe me, look at nearly any online comments section.

“You wrote that because you hate men” or “you wrote that because you hate women” are two online critiques whose great familiarity shows this tendency to read many works as autobiographical. See also “you wrote that because you want attention”, “you wrote that because you are too emotional/you don’t care enough”, “you wrote that because you are old/young and need to get laid more often/less frequently, you total prude/sloppy whore”.

Such responses are very common and to be a fulltime writer in the present age is to be shoved on to a makeshift psychoanalyst’s couch. As Kath Kenny found when she challenged the usefulness of autobiographical readings and was, even then, diagnosed with insensitivity, or of being the sort of monster who would “deny women’s trauma”. A bit more of that presently.

There are plenty of these readers who implicitly understand all writing as autobiography, never as argument.

For the moment: the thing, whatever it is, that is written is often seen as either incidental to or as the by-product of the self that is saying it. Even if they have not uttered this idea of writing as autobiography to themselves, readers makes their devotion to it plain. “You are a bad person” or “you are a good, inspiring person” are much more prevalent reactions, in both professional and social accounts of writing, than any other. There are plenty of these readers who implicitly understand all writing as autobiography, never as argument.

Then there are those writerly readers, who are often also writers, who have more carefully elaborated the idea of writing as inevitable autobiography. There is this idea that the most any author can ever do is write the self and, as such, is obliged not to obfuscate that fact. You must read all writing for evidence of its author. You must write about your experience, your hyphenate identities and yourself, otherwise, you’re just being dishonest.

This idea is not, by the way, total bollocks. Both the events and the writing of the 20th century demanded a critical look at the idea of “objective truth”, and of the selves who uttered it. A west that saw Vietnam and failed to question the “objective” nature of the foreign policy discourse that helped produce that war would now be an uninhabitable west. Even a non-existent one. We began to think, because we had to, that written truth was not an objective thing. We began to think of truth only as knowledge that had powerfully asserted itself.

(I would direct those who’d like further reading on this important shift to Foucault. However, every time I do something like that, someone writes in the comments “You are only saying that because you are a snob and a wanker”. And I am really trying here not to write an autobiographical text.)

Anyhow. Let’s agree that questioning the objectivity of written works, and other assorted discourse, is a healthy and a necessary and even an urgent task.

There really are some personal horrors better managed for practical reasons in private than via a women’s lifestyle website.

But, let’s think, along with Kenny, that the self might not be the single, or even the preferable, site for such a challenge.

Writing and reading the self has had, and possibly retains, some strategic force. But, accounts of the self, which now dominate news sites and news sites aimed at women in particular, have perhaps begun to be a bit of a public yoke. Even if they once were a more private liberation.

Maybe Your Story was cathartic to write. Maybe Her Story gave you a moment of identification. Even leaving aside the question of the psychological harm such public exchanges could exact on individuals—there really are some personal horrors better managed for practical reasons in private than via a women’s lifestyle website, no matter how in control of their craft their writers are—the assumption that they do good needs to be disputed.

I mean, first-world ladies. We’ve been at this My Personal Struggle caper for a while. And, save for decent royalty cheques, it’s achieved sweet fuck-all. Of course, there are many stories yet to be widely read—among them, accounts by Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with a disability, those held behind the wire in our nation’s offshore detention shitholes. It is dreadful and reprehensible that these stories have not been told. Which is not the same thing as saying that their telling will change a thing.

There is nothing particularly wrong with intimate published accounts of one’s personal struggle per se. There is nothing particularly wrong with making money from these personal accounts. But, there is something wrong with the uncritical acceptance of the idea that a description of personal trauma or hardship is also a blow for justice.

In most mass contexts…these stories of trauma or of difficult experience have now outlived their political usefulness.

Once, the personal was political. Once, first-person disclosure was a radical attack on history’s objective man of reason. In certain contexts—particularly academic and literary ones where the man of reason identifiably persists—it’s still possible to challenge dominant order with a personal account. But, in most mass contexts—and we would do well to remember that the consciousness raising group to which contemporary first-person trauma writing can trace its origin was not a mass exercise, but a private one undertaken with trusted friends—these stories of trauma or of difficult experience have now outlived their political usefulness.

Strategies for upturning power change with time. They just do. Ask any historian of the Vietnam War. A defensive manoeuvre that worked in battle fifty years ago is not necessarily going to retain its effectiveness today. Don’t come the Sun Tzu with me.

We can arguably say that the accounts of James Baldwin, Malcolm X or even of Germaine Greer made a dent with their often personal force in the material world. But, I do doubt that such narrativised passion functions very well any longer.

Here, by the by, I cannot agree completely with Kenny who looks upon the revolutionary written works of the ‘60s and the ‘70s as less autobiographical than the writing we have today. While it might be true that we have a greater volume of discernibly bad writing—and it is certainly true that we have fewer revolutionary writers, like Baldwin, whom we might defensibly call great—it is not true that there was not a great number of people writing chiefly about themselves. But, that was okay. It worked then. It was radical then. Now, it’s anticipated entertainment.

Again. This is not to say that a particular story about one’s depression or one’s experience of abuse is cynically produced. It’s not even to say that its consumption won’t make many readers feel comfort. It is to say that the confessional form (and I know it’s an old form, but it was once just a sometimes-food, and not, as it is today, a discursive staple) doesn’t work.

Once, personal stories energised people. Now, they entertain and pacify us. Personal stories are now received as situation comedies formerly were. Back in the day, the canned laughter of audiences effectively served to remind viewers of the live experience of shared laughter. Later, it came to just do the laughing for us when we, alone and tired from a day of labour, just couldn’t be bothered. Now, the laugh-track has largely disappeared from sitcoms and the multi-camera, fast-gag format barely survives. It got old. It no longer shocks us into laughter. I suspect that I am not the only reader who detects a similar exhaustion in the first-person political narrative form. It used to do the revolutionary crying for me. Now, it’s kind of gone the way of Charlie Sheen.

First-person accounts have now become a very old, and even potentially destructive, form of power.

To question the current political effectiveness of the first-person account is not to say “your pain doesn’t matter to me”. It is not to say “objective and detached writing is the only thing that works”. It’s not to uphold old forms of power. It’s to point out that first-person accounts have now become a very old, and even potentially destructive, form of power.

As critics of Kenny’s piece have pointed out, we are now reading stories written by people in subjugated identity categories. In one obvious sense, this is a good thing. Of course it’s good that people of colour, for example, now, as the popular cant goes, “have a voice”. Of course it’s good that tertiary educated, white, media class women (moi) need to shut up a bit and make room. But, what I find—and this is not some ugly boast, but a sad statement of fact—is that the conversational room left for people like me in a writing economy overcrowded with personal narratives is one, perversely, of my greater discursive privilege.

Almost all of the time these days, I write about big things. Things bigger than the self. Because there is no real market demand for writing a self that is as privileged as mine, I have turned to writing about the systems and the policies that work to form selves. Colleagues who have more write-able identities and problems—and these are often people who are far more erudite than me—tell me that they are just unable to make a dollar, either within academia or popular media, if they do not talk about their pain. Many women of colour, for example, are expected to write the self.

Women of colour who do not write chiefly about the self are more likely to be found in the margins. This is very frustrating as a reader, especially when I see a young writer like, for example, Amy McQuire, who ought to have a prominent national forum. McQuire is, I don’t know, about twelve or something and performs fucking rings around the writer that I was at that age. Her grasp of theory is impressive and ongoing, but her interest in writing the self seems to be nil.

Perhaps she’d love to write more about her lived experience. I haven’t asked her, so I don’t know. But, I do know that marvellous US academic and popular writer Yasmin Nair—a queer woman of colour, FWIW—powerfully rejects the chance to write the self and, as she has it, is powerfully penalised for it. Nair says, “It’s very difficult, especially in the US, to be a person of color analyzing capitalism. You’re much better off if you simply talk about having experienced it.”

This, to be clear, is in no nasty critique of personal stories. I enjoy reading them and I am very effing pleased when any writer, or labourer, doing it hard can make a living. This is not, in any way, a critique of any of the personal writing performed by women of colour.

It is a critique of the primacy of personal writing, whose political usefulness we continue, I think sometimes disingenuously, to overestimate. And it’s a critique of the hand-me-down gesture by privileged white writers who, it seems to me, are kind of inadvertently saying in offering more “room” to less privileged non-white writers, “Here’s this old thing that I’ve outgrown. It stopped working a while ago, but perhaps you’d like to try it out for a while.” This is the colonist’s guilty gesture.

Beyond all the market politics that demand that certain categories of people write a certain category of self and even beyond Nair’s proposition—which would take another of my wanky 2,000 words to recount—that the ideal neoliberal subject is one who can describe only their pain, there is a stubborn lack of logic at the centre of this idea of autobiography as autonomy.

There’s no winning. It’s all autobiography. It’s all about me, me, me.

When we write only the self, what is eclipsed are the very broad conditions that create that self. If we write, and in this era we do, chiefly of the experience of inhabiting a personal identity category, we necessarily have less time for focus on those broad systems that form those identity categories. Whether we are celebrating or mourning our identities—or, if you prefer, as I often do, our social class—we are turning away from the big stuff that made them. When our individual trauma, or our courage, is recognised, what then? What does the necessarily inspiring first-person account of this indignity or pain achieve? Perhaps just the assurance to the reader that they too can one day write about their indignity and pain, no matter how many multiple subjugated identity categories they inhabit.

I suggest that this is not a very practical program of social reform.

I also suggest that a new, less identity-focused kind of writing is something that we who are interested in social reform need to work toward. And, again, that autobiographical reading and writing have outlived their usefulness.

Oh, fuck it. Someone will probably just say “you wrote that because you are so contrary” in response. There’s no winning. It’s all autobiography. It’s all about me, me, me. There’s no way out of this maze of mirrors. I should have just written about my pain.

[box]Image: A still from artist Sophia Hewson’s video artwork Untitled (“are you ok bob?”) which, in part, prompted Kath Kenny’s SMH article and was the subject of Helen Razer’s column last week: Sophia Hewson’s ‘rape representation’ and the old trick of churching up titillation. [/box]

42 responses to “Writers and artists — your personal pain is not a blow for justice

  1. My view and its my own is that you can blame human nature in the 21st century. people just don’t give a shit or so the majority don’t. When Snowden very bravely exposed the rampant spying apparatus that is the American Government, he had the hat passed around so to speak by well meaning citizens. The first time, just after he landed in Russia he got a good collection but now he gets nothing. And there in lies the problem. Peoples attention span for matters of social importance is very short. The powers that be have us too worried about the mortgage, credit card etc. For sure there are those of us who give a shit but one only needs to look at the Sovereign Borders legislation to see that we are both narcissistic and xenophobic. There you have it.

    1. Well. I can’t agree.
      If you hold, as I do, that society creates subjects and not that subjects create societies, you can’t say “people are no good therefore society is no good”.
      It’s tempting to do this, of course. I would also say it’s pretty easy. Too easy. Anything that is too easy is usually too inadequate to explain the complexity of human endeavour.
      Of course, the attention of an individual person is not ever going to be sufficient to encompass everything. So, in this sense, we can say “people just don’t care by their nature”. But, of course, there are very real reasons that some people wouldn’t care about Snowden. Like, for example, they are busy with labour or unwell or being otherwise crushed by the everyday cost of staying alive. Or, they don’t think Snowden is as important as you do. They are more interested, quite justifiably, in something else.
      So. No. Not “There you have it”. While I happen to personally agree that the (largely invisible) loss of privacy is an important matter, it’s not the only matter in which people must be interested to prove their species good. It’s quite possible not to give a shit about surveillance and still give a meaningful shit about the shape of the world.
      All I am urging for is a more strategic writing by those who write and for those who read. And I am urging against writing precisely the thing that you seem to be promoting, which is moral condemnations or moral elevations of the self.
      I am saying write and read less about the self, whether you think that self is good or bad/not sufficiently interested in whatever you are interested in. Write and read more about the world. The world that forms the self. Because, again, the self does not form the world.

      1. The self on its own does not form the world; doesn’t equate with the world. But isn’t the world made up of all the selves? Is it possible to understand the world without the account of diverse selves?

        Thought-provoking piece.

        1. Hi, CG.
          My view of the self and the world is informed by Marxism and psychoanalysis. And, some feminism. I am not saying this to be a wanker. I am saying this so you know where I am coming from and can go there, too, if you like.
          Civlisation and its Discontents is an important book about the self as inevitably produced by the social. So is Lacan’s Ecrits, or whatever that impossibly boring but instructive thing is called. Society Makes People is a fundamental part of communist thought. Lacan’s feminist critics/students (not the ones who go on about The Male Gaze, but more Irigiaray or Kristeva) are also important for my understanding.
          Briefly, selves only ever form in relation to (a) other people and (b) social conditions. There are thinkers who can explain this to you far better than me.
          These are not small questions!

          1. Thanks for your reply Helen. No, indeed, questions about the self re the world are not small. I’m acquainted with the thinkers you’ve mentioned and don’t lack for an explanation of them, although your one-sentence summary ‘Briefly … conditions’ boils it down pretty nicely.

          2. Helen
            Perhaps ‘society makes people’ vs ‘ people makes society’ is a ,misleading,binary choice , every bit as misleading as the mind-body binary?

            Suggest that there is too much of the recurseive , chaotic , non linear : I.e. “strange loop” quality about modern societies and , therefore binary explanations don’t suffice .

  2. Helen – you are such a breath of fresh and (almost) unqualified writing air – and the moment you mentioned Amy McQuire – all your writing and perspectives came beautifully together. You should both be lead writers for all the major papers – and sit along with Waleed Ali for a revamped 7.30 or on whichever channel might gain you all the widest audience! During the early 1980s I searched Australian writing for fiction and non-fictional representations of our cultural/linguistic diversity and for ways of understanding more intelligently the Indigenous history and realities of our society. Then I left Australia for a couple of decades. When I came back – the whole dynamic of public political discourse seemed to have gone from aspirations (oops, shades of a children overboard man there) of fairness and reconciliation to total selfishness of the LNP-led ALP-followed variety. Your writing reminds me that we have not all been fooled! All praise to you and whatever personal pain you have kept out of our sight – and please keep serving it up with your irreverent wit and insight!

  3. re: writing always being autobiographical… I kind of don’t care?! Like, if I wanted to read a text without “something of the author in it” I would read an instruction manual, or take up computer coding. There are times when it’s too obvious, unchecked, or distracting, but then that’s my opinion on the writing overall. It seems really common nowadays for online comments to accuse the author of being x, without even bothering to address the content of the article (which I guess 50% of the time they haven’t bothered to read properly, but that’s a whole other issue). I went to see Jonathan Franzen (I know, I know) speak at the Sydney writers’ festival and not one but two audience members asked how he “dealt” with “accidentally revealing” something of himself in his writing. I was really surprised at how graciously he responded to this – essentially that it didn’t faze him, and that sometimes he learned something about himself much later which he kind of enjoyed. But I was struck too at how the audience (ahaha, I’m going to do it now) seemed to be conveying their kind of anxiety and intolerance for vulnerability or embarrassment or whatever difficult emotion might come if they were to put themselves in his place. Which I think goes to your other point about people/writers getting to the point where they think written works don’t necessarily exist to change or challenge things, we just keep recreating them endlessly and if we can Just Push Through… I really like another point that I think you are making also – that art and texts can and do contribute to transformation but maybe not the ones which are focused on One Person’s Journey.

    1. Not hating on your comments, just pointing out that computer coding is almost entirely the author’s work. Computer language syntax has none of the author, just as grammar and spelling has none of the author. But crafting a beautiful,responsive and reliable website is as personal and unique as the number of programmers sitting down to the task. Looking back at my own work, I can see where I was tired, see where I was confused and generally brain fucked, but can also see where I was thing clearly and in the zone.

      1. ahh, that is a very cool thing for me to consider! I feel one wouldn’t “see” a writer in a website or a program unless they knew the language very well, even if the website for all intents and purposes is being used correctly.

  4. Um:
    It’s sad and boring to be sick in the head, and until Prozac Nation was published, it wasn’t even faintly hip. Depression, anxiety disorder, dysthymia or whatever one chooses to call whatever the amorphous thing, or things, that so many of us seem to wrestle with, is unglamorous crap.In 1998, Helen Razer, JJJ icon and self-confessed fruit-bat, was forced to reassess her high-profile life when she found herself temporarily blind and suffering incapacitating dizzy spells, hyper-vigilance, headaches and a whole gamut of other symptoms associated with being hurled about in the anxiety and depression spin cycle.At her lowest Helen wrestled with suicide, but with the help of psychoanalysis and judicious drug therapy, she dragged herself into recovery. In her usual irreverent urbane style Helen chronicles her own painful but ultimately transformative experience and draws on that to discuss everything from finding a good shrink to dealing with suicidal thoughts, from tips on what to do when you hate yourself to how to cope with a panic attack. At a time when youth depression and suicide is on the national agenda, Gas Smells Awful speaks bravely, honestly and optimistically to anyone trying to find a way through the torment of depression. – See more at:

    1. What’s your point?
      In the time that has elapsed since publication of that book, which sold quite well, the incidence of mental illness has risen and the funding for services to address it has diminished.
      So, it was that book, inter alia, that prompted me to think that Powerful Personal Stories didn’t have the political impact I once attributed to them.
      In fact, as I believe I have said clearly, I believe their force can be destructive. In writing a book about My Personal Struggle in 1998, I believed I was making a Change For The Better.
      Now, I believe I was writing something then from a position of great privilege that largely functioned to make people less privileged falsely feel that mental illness and its recovery were democratised. And that Talking About It was a cure in itself. It’s not. We don’t need more personal stories. We need more bulk-billed services.
      In the two decades that have passed, I have changed my mind. I have written about this previously (and you were Googling me, so that might have come up) and I make the point in this piece that I have changed my mind.
      So, what’s your point?

      1. Not sure why this assumption that memoir has as its objective bringing about a Change for the Better. Isn’t *the purpose of writing is moral instruction* a concept we left behind with F.R.Leavis and the Western Canon?
        There is crap writing in every genre, and plenty in memoir, no argument there. I’ve only read two memoirs in the last few years, Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking and Burrough’s Running with Scissors. I didn’t read either to change for the better or be morally instructed, I was interested in their accounts of certain circumstances in their lives. I don’t imagine either memoir will diminish the difficulty of grieving for a dead partner and dying child, or the challenges of surviving a bizarre and abusive childhood. I don’t think either will inspire the US or any other government to increase services to people in such situations. I doubt that was either author’s purpose, though it may have been yours.
        I can’t see why it is the responsibility of memoir to bring about social change, anymore than it’s the responsibility of any other writing genre or artistic expression.
        *We don’t need more personal stories. We need more bulk-billed services.* I’m at a loss to understand how personal stories have provoked this government into withdrawing medical services. There’s an assumption there that memoir writers can change government policy if they just stop writing their stories. This makes no sense to me. There’s also an assumption that memoir writers would be more useful as political writers if only they’d get past the self. There’s no reason to believe this is the case.
        The best memoir IMO has a political context, and an awareness of a personal story as being part of a much larger narrative. Not every writer can pull that off – you apparently don’t think you did.

        You may have moved on since you were a celebrity who wrote her personal story. of depression. Perhaps many people currently writing their personal stories of depression, child abuse, personal achievement etc. will also move on after a few years more of experiencing life. Perhaps even the act of writing the story will enable them to move on, as it probably did you. What right do you have to complain about others doing exactly what you have done?
        Are you not still writing from a position of great privilege that can make people with less privilege feel crap about doing nothing more than you have done?
        We need more bulk-billed services. And we need to be able to read other’s personal accounts of circumstances that interest us. There’s no choice that needs to be made between these two things.
        Your piece would have been far stronger if you’d included the explanation of your own progress through and beyond the memoir stage, but hey, then you’d have been writing about yourself, wouldn’t you?

        1. Given that the entire piece is about challenging the popular assumption that first person writing is an effective political strategy, I foolishly supposed your quote of a twenty year old book blurb free from any context but “um” might have had something to do with challenging the popular assumption that first person writing is an effective political strategy,
          Apparently, you were just having some sort of gotcha moment with something that I didn’t write.
          Enjoy. Or, at least, good luck finding an article with which you have a coherent dispute.

          1. No, it wasn’t a gotcha moment, and I see there is no point in attempting to have this discussion with you.
            Thank you for responding.

  5. You’re right, Helen. This piece is all about you–no matter how much you try to manage your readers’ responses. The thing is that you have no claim to a universal perogative to tell writers how they should situate themselves in their writing–and even less right to speak for readers. Thank you for your highly developed opinion. Now I’ll get back to my reading and writing.

    1. So. Is any piece about the future of political writing possible, then? Or is it all just “Don’t Silence People”.
      To suggest that the effectiveness of something has diminished is not to tell people to stop doing it.
      Nor is it, obviously, to have any power to do so.
      I am writing on an independent arts site about an immensely profitable thing that happens most often on corporate news sites. I am not “silencing” anybody. I am just saying that this apparently liberating trend may not be as liberating as is widely thought. How is this offensive or unethical?

      1. Jane, spelling is not an intellectual pursuit. Being good at it mandates a good memory and a boring life. Rain man was a great speller. Why don’t you just put literature up on the slab and dissect it into tiny pieces of linguistics and correctly spelt words.

    2. It’s fine to judge whether you think the piece succeeds or fails in its aims, but it has clearly not been written as some kind of hypothetical imperative that you think you are being told you would have choice but to follow in your reading and writing; that is between you and your sense of self in relation to the rest of the world.

  6. Nice work – you nailed it Helen.
    They can all go shut the * up
    we are bored to death and
    want it to stop.


  7. Amazing piece, thank you Helen.

    In addition to Foucault, I think Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is possibly the genesis of identity politics (via a very long and twisted path). Weird, I know, but isn’t that where the idea of who is talking taking primacy over what is said comes from? Your point about strategies of resistance having a use-by date and eventually becoming powerless (I would go so far as to say becoming inverted or perverted) is an interesting way to rethink Nietzsche as well: When he wrote the Genealogy, looking behind the text was a strategy to reveal power. Now identity politics has perverted this strategy to the point where what is said is completely irrelevant and all that matters is who is speaking. Then we apply the universal gender/skin colour/sexuality axioms and natch Beyonce (I read your excellent column recently) is oppressed and flawlessly righteous, while every Ukranian coal miner has his boot on her neck.

    I am painfully aware that holding such opinions makes me basically Mark Latham (on Twitter anyway), although I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire, but identity politics, in my experience, turns everything into these weirdly exaggerated straw man dialectics: you’re either with Clementine or with Mark. Groan.

    1. Love it absolutely. In regards to the pissing, I believe we could sell ties at writers festivals down south when he is there, if ever again.

    2. No Foucault without Nietzsche. Although, proper learned Marxists tell me he is counter-revolutionary. (Obviously, Foucault has produced his fair share of identity politics problems.)
      I was actually reading a lecture in preparation for this piece which contained, from The Will to Power, ” In a certain sense man projects his drive to truth, his ‘goal’, outside himself as a world that is, as a metaphysical world, as a ‘thing-in-itself’, as an already existing world. “

      1. I don’t know that quote, but WTP is a bit of a posthumous acontextual grab bag of words recovered from Nietzsche’s recycling bin. Which is my way of excusing myself from reconciling what I think that means with what I understand of Nietzsche, namely: no first principles.
        On that topic: I know you like Marx and I will embarrass myself here, but would love to understand your position: I get the materialism part, but not the dialectics. Dialectic, I thought, have to rest upon those exact first principles, things-in-themselves, etc that Nietzsche rejects. Then some post-Marxists whom I have read thoroughly (Baudrillard & Deleuze e.g.) also reject first principles. How does Marx inspire them beyond materialism? Appreciate your opinion if you have one.

      2. And yes, I suppose anyone who rejects first principles would be seen as counter-revolutionary. Even when he declares the death of god, he is not revolting against the church, simply describing what he sees happening around him. Is it possible to be revolutionary without dialectics?

  8. great work and interesting thoughts. I am not a writer, but rather an artist and for the same reasons there is a lot of art that is autobiog, and about the pain, or the pain in art. completely circular…but the idea that it tells a story that is so personal it’s political is not necessarily so.
    recently a young female artist arranged to be raped so she could film it for a video work. um really…is that a staged truth, is it porn, is it just I had no pain to make art with so i thought if i threw myself under the bus for the rest of us…such a fake thing to do…

  9. Helen, once again you articulate my thoughts on this issue perfectly.
    The tortured navel gazing is everywhere. Young white middle class authors changing the world one “me” at a time, distracting readers from actual goings on. Often in an awkward, cliche-packed vanilla flavour too.

    1. Again. To be clear. It’s not just the number of identity categories (white, middle class etc) that are being represented that is the problem. It is the representation itself.

  10. Personal writing and identity politics are both positive things – except when they become tools that keep us divided. It’s in the same way that dear Mr Edward Bernays foresaw – that our greed could be used to divide and conquer us and keep us quiet by a small group of powerful people. Personal accounts that do not tie into the greater whole are ultimately just a kind of capitalistic sweet teat sucking.

    It’s got to be about the big picture now. The diversity of individuals within the system refusing to be divided from each other by the big end of town that always bets on both sides of the war.

    I’m glad you continue to write about the big picture, Helen. It’s needed.

    “In difference there is completeness.
    In completeness there is difference.”
    — Chuang-tzu

  11. I had a ‘discussion’ with a friend on Saturday, my point was that most of “you” is predisposed by body chemistry and that only a part from ‘society. I think she beat me that night, and, aaarrgh, your point to CG only adds weight to her point.
    I love being wrong – means I have learnt something. But usually, I need to have formed an opinion before I can accept another.
    This probably has nothing to do with your article – me being a factory accountant – but you made me think.

    1. Hi, La.
      The nature vs nurture thing is at least as old as Aristotle.
      I am not saying that Nothing is Nature. I am not absolutely opposed to sociobiology, although that particular discipline has led to some really terrible conclusions. If you observe people as they are in the world and then try to justify that with recourse to half-baked evolutionary understanding or recourse to imagined prehistory, you produce conclusions like “mean and women are just different. Because babies” or the racial science of the twentieth century.
      For mine, these purported biological differences are unimportant. Sure, you and I may have some sort of state of nature differences. But, what then? What do we make of that? Not only is this brand of Social Darwinism a misreading of Darwin who, I understand, never said anything like “evolution just means getting better and better!” or “Nature is in perfect balance!”, but it is frequently used to justify unequal distribution of material goods.
      I recently spoke with a social justice type who surprised me by saying “All societies have always had a pyramidic power structure”. Her argument being that there would always be inequality because some people are just more powerful than others. Her social justice aim was only to have those people who were more naturally powerful take their natural place at the top of the pyramid.
      Leaving aside the fact that there have been examples of societies with no top-down power structure, what this view of “The Individual Creates Society” doesn’t take into account is the fact of the mass. Now, I am not huge on mathematics, but I do know that game theorists have one or two things to say about how a crowd behaves. Numbers take on their own logic. Many people do not derive their behaviour from individual people. Peak hour, for example, is a mass phenomenon where individual behaviour is fairly irrelevant.
      So. Even if we agree that there are Natural Differences and that, for some reason, it’s important to look for gay genes or leadership genes or whatever (my personal feeling is that this geneticism is evil bullshit, but let’s leave that aside) we still face the problem of how the mass so often directs individual behaviour.
      Natural justifications for social processes are ass-backward thinking, in my view. Even if there does turn out to be, at some point, a proof that people are fundamentally different from each other. And, you know, that science ain’t in. Despite what this half-baked neuroscientists say. OH LOOK BRAIN CHEMISTRY HS CHANGED, they scream as they show another MRI to a TEDx audience. Conveniently leaving out the facts that (a) actual neurologists think they are a joke and (b) brain chemistry changes throughout the day anyhow and no one really knows much of what that means.
      Anyhow. I think reason helps us understand this old argument about nature and nurture better. Let’s just admit that we don’t know and aren’t close to knowing and think about whether or not the debate is even worth having.

  12. Helen, So many column inches devoted to so little in this country (and no doubt elsewhere) and yet most people haven’t heard of Amy McQuire. Very glad you gave her a push – she’s as good as anyone in this country, a lot better than most, and should be on everyone’s must read list.

  13. I have found the interaction here under posts very interesting. The “readers” seem to write thank you notes and the “writers” seem to attempt their own personalised blog posts. Luckily nothing as simple and dogmatic as you predicted Helen (I assume the haters couldn’t find any personal bones big enough to chew on).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *