Saturday, January 18, 2003

Reading and Writing

These are some remarks that come from reading Joseph Duemer's remarks on poetry here. He says:

" In any case, I'm no longer interested in poetry or theories of poetry that don't attempt--however ridiculously--to save the world. Maybe I can make a beginning toward understanding the art I've practiced more than thirty years by forgetting about poetry & thinking about language."

Well, I find myself no longer much interested in philosophy that is not connected to public life;or does not have as its goal making the world a better place and so enable human and non-human flourishing.

Joseph also connects his remarks on poetry to philosophy here. He says:

"Poetry & philosophy are sometimes said to be at war with each other, but from another viewpoint, I think that both poetry & philosophy are about justice. Not in the narrow sense of "the justice system," though that's part of it--justice, rather, as akin to temperament in music: an adjustment toward the human & particular, away from the abstract."

Well I concur with the movement away from the abstract and theoretical, to the human and the particular. And I would add back to the common life that all share in the nation state. I would add to 'philosophy is about justice ' that it is also concerned with the good life because I am not a liberal.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Something Interesting

This book review indicates the classical conception of philosophy as a way of life, rather than the academic conception of philosophy as theory, system building, logical analysis, resolving abstract problems or the theory part of natural science.

I think that Thomas Hobbes rather than Christianity killed off this conception of philosophy, or drove it underground. It was recovered by Nietzsche. Foucault was its great modern exponent. That gets overlooked by all the liberal humanist attacks on him for his relativism and nihilism.

Philosophy as a way of life? What could that possibly mean? For some idea have a look here at the post on 18.11. 2002 by Christopher Robinson. It has nothing to do with teaching professsional philosophy in academia abdn writing a few articles for philosophy magazines. What is offered here is a romantic conception of philosophy as a way of life, though not in the sense of living on the mountain tops with the eagles. It is an austere life, lonely life disconnected from other people and living for ideas.

This is more or less a version of the artist in the garrett passionate about truth remodelled on Wittgenstein, who Robinson says:

"He sought solace in austerity. He offered a glimpse of an alternative style of life that market forces push out of view. If not for the visual contrasts afforded by eccentrics, philosophers, the mad, and dissidents, only mainstream conformism would be imaginable. At the center, what counts as protest is buying into new fashions. Innovative thinking is revered for its profitability. Intellectual energy is absorbed the demands of television. When Wittgenstein says 'a philosopher is not a citizen of any community ideas' we need to see that this is not a matter of personal choice on the part of the philosopher. Philosophy itself is viewed as dangerous by society."

On this romantic model philosophy as a Socratic way of life is similar to that of eccentrics, the mad and dissidents; ie those nomadic types disconnected from, and excluded by normal society. They live a life at odds to the 9-5 work world, families, mortgages and politics and do not really care about such things.

I find it an unattractive way of life. I tried living this austere life once: the poverty; isolation; living in an community of alcoholics, bums, unemployed and artists near the gas works in a run-down working class cottage down the road from a foundary. I survived financially by doing 4 hours work a day in a factory-----from 6am-10am--- and this enabled me to devote the rest of the day to my books, photography and writing. A single man's life really.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Australian History: How do we speak within the web of power?

Cathie Clement, the Perth-based historian, has posted a long piece on the ACPHA Discussion Forum here on Tuesday, January 14. It is a long and important post.

It starts by responding to comments made by Uncle at ABC Watch about who can speak and who cannot speak in public debates about the meaning of Australian historian. It then moves to defend the role of oral history in the writing of Australian history in response to Quadrant-style attacks that oral history amounts to little more than bush gossip” and “tales my granny told me”. It then discusses the role of the professional historian in our public debates about what the various, competing interpretations of Australian history mean for us.

What Cathie says in terms of the role of politics in the formation of public opinion is important. She says:

"The current clash between historians and their supporters is a by-product of people viewing the world and sources of information from different positions. To some extent, I can empathise with both sides. Perhaps that is because I have never had much time for either ideology or theory. I recall trying to explain that outlook to someone and being told that, if you sit on the fence, you get shot at by both sides. I would argue, however, that sitting on the fence is quite different to occupying the middle ground. I would also argue that the fence that runs through the middle ground in the current debate is the key to understanding it".

Cathie sees the professional historian as standing to one side of the political battles in the cultural wars where people's views are within different political perspectives and their interpretations of texts are informed by their politics. For the connection between Australian history, public opinion, culture wars, see public opinion.

The historical expert is a bit like the expert in a court of law. They are independent and not partisan in a political sense. This is the old liberal conception of (empirical) historical reason and scholarly research being above politics. Its admirable but it has been mugged by reality of the culture wars.

We all know and have experience of situations in a court of law or in public policy that scientists and experts speaking for different interests whilst saying that they are non-political. So we have the doctor from Big Tobaaco, the environmental scientist for a polluting aluminum company etc etc. Now we have historians from different political interests speaking up within a left-right axis.

How do we make sense of that? Can we? What can we do about it?

Cathie has a good go. She adds:

"It seems to me that thinking of a similar sort [The political question of interest splitting fair and square down a Left/Right axis] has pitted the “conservative” and/or “right-wing” historians against the “orthodox” and/or “left-wing” historians in the current debate. Why is it so important for people to prove that their view of history and/or the world is the only valid view? Why not simply acknowledge that Australia’s history consists of thousands of cameos? Why not strive to find a middle ground where the good and the bad aspects of our past can be examined dispassionately?"

The simple answer to her question: 'Why is it so important for people to prove that their view of history and/or the world is the only valid view?' is power. We are in a cultural war and this war involves a conflict over the meaning of Australian history. Power not the validity [of the argument] is what is being contested here. Power is about passion and the cultural wars are about hating the enemy and looking for allies to help destroy the enemy.

So what does this mean for Cathie's second rhetorical question?

"Why not strive to find a middle ground where the good and the bad aspects of our past can be examined dispassionately?"

Well, the short answer is that we are in a war, not participating in a seminar behind the ivy clad walls of the ivory tower. In war we don't find the middle grround to examine things passionately. Thats diplomacy and we are at war because diplomacy failed and compromise was not acceptable.

Many would say that the world of power is terrible and shocking. We should return to the world of the academic seminar, a world of reason where people can sort out or discover truth. This implies that the world of public affairs should be organized according to the conventions of the academy. So speak the academics. But not those involved in political life. They understand that public affairs operates according to a different "logic" or different conventions. The name for this different way of speaking and writing---a name rarely mentioned these days is rhetoric: the effective speaking and writing or the art of persuasion.

See Silva Rhetoricae.It is the world of the classical Romans who figured out how philosophy could be involved in political life. See Cicero's rhetorical treatise De Oratore, "On the Orator".

So how do we speak within the webs of power? We speak rhetorically. Those who write the speeches for politicians know all about rhetoric.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

An insight into the neocons?

Neoconservatives are ex-liberals. Dave Brock, Blinded by the Right, said that. They are ex-liberals mugged by reality----who said that? (Irving Kristol, the conservative behind the The Public Interest and The National Interest).

The debate over conservatism is not good in Australia. We are very unclear what the different strands of conservatism are and what they mean. For the media conservatism centres around John Howard: he defines what Australian conservatism stands for. How does this differ from neo-conservatism?

Want to know more about neo-cons? For a quick grab see here and here and here and here

Want a bit more depth? Then here.

Neoconservatives are not the Old Right, the cultural conservatives who were fearful of the economic and social consequences of unfettered capitalism and immigration, and isolationalist skeptical of American engagement abroad. That was Pat Buchanan-----or the Pauline Hanson One Nation movement. They were not the religious New Right of Jerry Falwell in the US or Fred Nile in Australia. Nor were they libertarians of the Cato Institute in the US or Catallaxy Files in Australia who wanted the government out of everything, even though the neocons were in favour of small government, free markets and individual freedom.

Neocons are those who broke with the anti-war movement left over Vietnam; saw the academic left as anti-American cultural radicals; saw the political correctness of the dangerous radicals as a soft totalitarianism; defended traditional standards of a scholarship in the universities. Their manifesto was Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir by Norman Podhoretz, the editor of the intellectual monthly magazine Commentary, who began began his professional life as a literary critic but became a publicist: a writer of current public topics or a journalist who makes political matters his speciality.

What the neoconservatives stand for is very relevant to Australia. They were part of the Reagan administration's strategy to force a right-wing economic and social agenda on the country by political means. This is what the Howard Government is doing and C. Pearson is one of its court intellectuals.

With the demise of the Cold War in the 1980s the passion and rationale for the neoconservatives evaporated: anti-Communism was the rallying point of their politics. The old Soviet enemy---the evil empire--- was no more. The historic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism was no more. The sharp tongued polemicists and sharp elbowed operatives and talking heads then turned their attention to mobilizing resentments against liberal culture ----feminism, multiculturalism, affirmative action, environmentalism, public education.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Working through the Past

I notice that both of our academic bloggers, John Quiggin and Ken Parish have said that it is time to move from the recent Ryan Windshuttle dispute about Australian pioneer history. Exploring truth and error in the footnotes to the academic texts has been exhausted. Their judgement is that there is little more to say unless something new comes up.

Is this the case? Well, I received this email from Rosemary Farrow. This is what she says:

"There is no absolute truth in history. There are facts which are recorded by people, and the process of interpretation begins with the first witness and report, through the lines of journalists and historians from the event itself to the present. Individuals interpret events, judging their relevance and importance according to contemporary cultural, personal and political dynamics.

It is because of these variables and the constant rewriting of history that we require academics to provide evidence and arguments to support their conclusions. And we require them to suffer review by their peers through academic journals. Its called academic rigor, and it can get a bit nasty. Careers sometimes hang in the balance. Academic supremacy becomes synonymous with the truth, and the battle for one becomes the battle to define the other.

In a socially controversial area of study, this process gets played out more publicly, and sometimes to the detriment of the study, and its subjects. The publicity provides another arena and another set of weapons to use in the battle for supremacy. At this point the academic process itself takes on a political role. One could question the validity of any 'truth' to emerge from such an adversarial, even gladatorial process.

Much would be gained in this if more source material were to be published. Having read compilations of early public documents and government correspondence, I can assure those who want to look (sorry, no link as yet) that far from being inaccessible or dry, they offerflavours and textures to the understanding of frontier history not possible from reinterpretation - a closeness to the event. Our history is young yet - perhaps too young to become the unique province of academics."

Rightly said. Our history is to important to be left to the academics. The interpretation of Australian history is about power, tactics and strategies of a battle for supremacy. Though this is pretty obvious to those who work and live in political life, it is what academic historians such as Dick Moses Rendering the past less unpalatable want to close down.

Power and truth don't travel well together and academics have trained to instinctively displace politics in favour of truth, even though they are well aware that the political dynamics of the present shape the way we view history. Hence we have the 'academic squabbles' view by those involved in political life.

What is the political battle over history about? It is a conflict between friends and enemies over how we understand history in the present, the meanings of the past for the political battles in the present, and a coming to terms with the past. This a battlefield of polemics and rhetoric in a public world where there has been a lack of historical awareness of what happened on the frontier and since. The Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair in South Australia indicates how history and politics are deeply inter-meshed in the present. The politics involved ranged from protecting indigenous rights and securing protection for Aboriginal groups against racially discriminatory legislation to the soft totalitarianism of the left liberal thought police, with everything inbetween.

We are a people with no historical memory of what happened. Our history---including anthropology has been marked by a forgetfulness' or a 'disremembering' that has been 'practised on a national scale' for two centures. Our history has been a view from a window which the writing of history has carefully placed to exclude an Aboriginal history. The view from this window onto the continent, as constructed by history/anthopology texts, is a Whig narrative of the coming and development of British civilisation'. the significance of the work of Henry Reynolds and other historians is that they have addressed this forgetfulness in the form of of an historical 'remembrances' by reminding White Australia of what it would prefer to forget about its history.

The remembering of and alternative aboriginal history is painfully being recovered, and it is proving to be deeply traumantic, as indicated by the recent Bringing Them Report. The politics is a working through the past; not in the sense of the unpleasant task of clearing away or tidying up the acummulated documents on a desk; but in the psychoanalytic sense of coming to terms with a painful past that has wounded us as a people. That is why it is traumatic.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Windshuttle, Ryan & Multiple Interpretations of History

I had promised to finish the post last Friday on this issue. The high temperatures in Adelaide over the weekend made it difficult and what little time I had in the 'cool' early morning temperatures was spent painting. This stuff is complex and it requires that you have your wits about you. Mine deserted me in the heat. I was only good for painting. And I could not post late last night because the server was playing up.

Where we had got to in the previous post was that if we view history as 'a complex terrain in which multiple stories and interpretations are represented', then we cannot evaluate the different interpretations. What it does mean is that we have a problem: how do we going about evaluating the competing interpretations of Australian frontier history offered by Windshuttle and Ryan?

As Ron Brunton puts it an email to me: 'why should we prefer a near 'genocide' interpretation to a 'nun's picnic' interpretation (Professor Claudio Veliz's remarks at the launch of Windschuttle's book)'.

Brunton points out that Lyndall Ryan failed to show this is so in her article, 'No historian enjoys a monopoly over the truth', in The Australian, December, 17, 2002. What she did say there
was that she and Windshuttle 'used the same sources to arrive at different conclusions'; that the history of the Tasmanian Aborigines cannot be definitively written; that no one can claim a final and complete "truth"; that the nature of historical interpretation lies at the heart of our differences; and that these differences are a part of a continuing debate about the consequences of colonisation.

If we read this article sympathetically we can interpret Ryan as dumping Absolute truth; as saying that each historian claims to be speaking the truth; that there are multiple interpretations of frontier history; and that her interpretation was better than Windshuttle's. She is not saying that all truths are equally valid as John Quiggin, and others claim.

What she did not do is then provide the justification for why her genocide interpretation was better than Windshuttle's. No argument was given. Ryan was treated roughly at this point by the empiricists and little attempt was made to tease out what she was getting at- in terms of the meaning of her text. She was roundly condemned and turned into a casuality of the empiricist gatekeeping against an interpretive history that focuses on text, writing, interpretation.

The first thing that needs to be done is to establish the reasonableness/plausibility of the 'two truths' position. That we need to do this indicates both the dogmatism of the defenders of empiricist history---there is only one way to write history---and their lack of charity in interpreting the texts of their opponents----they speak nonsense.

What these accounts say is don't bother trying to elucidate the different truths position. It cannot be done. There is only one Truth in history. When Ryan talks about different truths she is confused, is speaking nonsense---how can there be different truths?---- and needs to get herself sorted out if she wants to retain her credibility.

We have shown that the 'different truths' position is not unreasonable if you dump Absolute truth; and that there are good grounds to do this in the writing of history.

How then can we make sense of the 'different truths' position. One way that has been suggested is to consider the different interpretations as maps that enable us to make sense of our history. They are akin to the different maps of the city which enable us to get around the city--and so forms of practical knowledge. Different maps do different things, and as they represent the reality of the city from different perspectives, the have differnt truths The maps can be wrong in the sense of being misleading due to being badly drawn, out of date, leaving things out, or putting in things that are not there.

What the map interpretation of different truths position does is indicate that the Ryan position is a reasonable one. It lies somewhere in the middle between the extremes of John Quiggin's Absolute truth position and Windshuttle's account of the po-mo position in which we are all wrapped up in our cocoons, projecting our biases, prejudices and interests onto an empty text, incapable of communicating with another and unable to decide between different interpretations. She is not saying that we should coexist with different interpretations (maps) or pick whatever story (map) suits you. She is saying that her map does a better job than Windshuttle's in enabling us to understand frontier history.

If so then how do we go about judging, weighing up, evaluating which interpretation is the more reasonable, plausible or truthful? Empiricists say this decided by facts because our interpretations are just interpretations worked up from historical facts. So if you get your facts wrong then you must change your interpretations. Facts are foundational.

There is a lot of dodgy philosophy going on here as I have pointed out in previous posts. The historical facts are written texts ---police reports--- that stand in need of interpretation. They are interpretations of what happened and may be misunderstandings. Consider the Massacre Creek incident around 1915 in the East Kimberleys, Western Australia. In commenting on this Sir William Deane says:

"It is clear that there was throughout Australia, including the Kimberley at these times, often reluctance on the part of police to file adverse reports or to bring proceedings against white settlers in respect of extreme physical retribution against Aborigines for the killing of livestock on traditional lands. It needs little imagination to conceive that that reluctance could well be heightened in a case where a former police constable was involved.

At the same time, there would be few lawyers, at least of my generation, with relevant experience who are unaware of how misleading and unreliable untested police reports of alleged verbal statements by illiterate, particularly illiterate Aboriginal, accused or witnesses can be. If one were to restrict acceptance of oral indigenous history in relation to the killing of Aborigines to those cases where there was confirmatory police evidence or action, the resulting sanitised version of the events of the dispossession would be contrary to plain fact and even commonsense."

Police records stand in need of a little critical interpretation.

Secondly, Windshuttle's empiricist appeal to historical fact relies on police reports and dismisses the oral history of Aborigines. Their stories are not considered to be a form of historical knowledge. If we take the Massacre Creek incident again we find that oral history is quite strong and as Cathie Clement has argued, it is unreasonable to simply ignore the indigenous oral history to the extent that it is not supported by police records. Sir William Deane again:

"In the case of Mistake Creek, the oral history is remarkably strong. As published and as recounted by Kija people, it lacks any dreamtime element of the kind that can occasionally lead to confusion between fact and allegory. The foundation of that oral history presumably lies in the eyewitness accounts of three Kija people who survived the massacre."

Nor do we treat oral stories as fact.Oral history can involve misunderstands, since just like police records, it involves interpretations. As Ken Parish says:

"...excessive reliance on oral history is also problematic. Even eye-witnesses to any given event typically differ significantly on what they saw. Moreover, their memories fade over time, and are embellished unconsciously by reconstruction and fabulation. Courtroom lawyers are familiar with these problems. Inaccuracies are compounded enormously when stories are successively retold over time. That is why strict rules of evidence exclude hearsay. Oral history concerning events of more than a century ago is almost certainly tenth-hand hearsay at best.

That is not to say that oral history should necessarily be rejected, just that it should be treated with extreme caution and generally not accepted as necessarily true unless corroborated in some reasonable way."

As Cathie Clement points out in her remarks in the comments box in John Quiggin Keith Windshuttle establishes his "facts" by ignoring Aboriginal oral evidence, drawing on selected pieces of documentary texts, and even using her own 1989 book. Windshuttle's historical "facts' are woven with multiple layers of interpretation. What the empiricists are doing doing is acknowledging the extent of interpretation they are engaged in writing frontier history, or the way historical 'facts' are enmeshed in layers and layers of interpretation.

Facts cannot be treated as foundational because the empiricist foundation is built on heaps of presuppositions that can be, and has been, challenged by historical reason. Instead of gracefully conceding these points (they are ignored), dogmatic empiricists defend their empiricist history by saying that it is not reasonable to say that if your 'facts' are fundamentally wrong and not change your interpretation'.

If only things were that simple!

This position basically ignores the different levels involved in 'interpretation': these levels are hierarchical as start from theory-ladened observation and go to the historical paradigm being prerequisite to observation. This means that Historians write their history from within particular paradigms, historical traditions or discourses and that they do not change their discourse because they have made an error that X people were killed at place y in time p. They will revise their interpretations of this particular incident---eg. Massacre Creek---- but stay with working from within their genocide or settler discourse. These historical discourses are systematic with multiple stands and they are never really verifed or falsified as such ---eg., the settler discourse is still going strong despite being shown to be flawed in terms of its covering up of the massacres of Aborigines. The discourses are abandoned or replaced over time, even though practitioners like to write the history of discourses as a linear, progressive history.

Different bits at different levels of a discourse are going to revised on different grounds --some because of empirical evidence--a date here, an incident there -- there whilst other levels will be revised on political grounds----the big genocide level. Empiricists will say that political commitment has nothing to do with it----but this ignores the way that historical knowledge functions as a practical knowledge that is part of our particular political projects. Historical knowledge is not simply a body of theoretical knowledge that will be completed one day. We need to think of historical knowledge in terms of knowledge/power.

Other levels of our discourse will continue to remain unchanged---eg., the particular empiricist philosophy that underpines it all. So the politics can change---a shift from left to right----whilst the commitment to history as a empiricist science remains unchanged. This is what happened with Windshuttle.

In arguing this I am not attributing all this to Ryan, nor saying that it is implied in Ryan's text. It starts from the insight of 'learning to think historically' in Ryan's text, but then moves on to show that an interpretive writing of history is able to make sense of what is happening in the historians dispute. Hopefully the defenders of an empiricist history will become less dogmatic, a little more hermeneutically self-reflective about their own practices, and begin to acknowledge the historicity of understanding.