Created Communities: Caboolture Historical Village
[Department of blatant self-promotion]
My latest paper has just been published in Altitude. Please cite repeatedly in prestigious journals…
Abstract: Following Zygmunt Bauman’s provocation that times of physical and ideological insecurity lead to an appeal to the ideals of community, this paper considers the way in which history and community are reconstructed at the Caboolture Historical Village, an open-air museum north of Brisbane. The village privileges the region’s pioneer past and the period evoked is rural, late nineteenth century, largely excluding any references to Caboolture’s modern, urban history. An analysis of the site reveals that the version of community on display is narrowly constructed around the ideals of hard work, individualism, and piety, and reveals an emphasis on technological progress and innovation to the exclusion of the lives of the people whose lives are ostensibly commemorated. This paper contends that this idealised construction of an homogeneous, unified past that excludes problematic figures such as aborigines and migrants serves a conservative fantasy of the “good old days” where issues were black and white, community consensus was assumed, and external threats were easily identified and repelled. It argues that in a postmodern world of cosmopolitanism, international migration, and global terror, places like the Caboolture Historical Village increase their appeal in an uncertain world.
Gunders, John. “Created Communities: Caboolture Historical Village.” Altitude 10 (2012).
Available here [pdf 184kb]
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
So, Saturday or Sunday, depending on how you reckon the time zones, was supposed to be the Rapture . . . at least according to Harold Camping.
I’ve read or heard about the Rapture since I was first able to read. What has been equally clear to me since that time is that the belief that it will happen—if it happens—in the way that Camping suggests is not widespread or given much credence in the mainstream Churches. The one thing that they do agree on is that God will come again to judge the living and the dead. Now that may be some big day of judgement or, as many believe, it applies to each of us as we die. Sooner or later, each of us faces our maker and has to give an account. Which brings us to the heart of the matter – what will that account be?
One Christian challenge that is given wide credence is that we should live each day as if it were our last. And lets face it, every time we step out of our door and into the traffic that is a distinct possibility. But this is not simply a Christian thing; our culture has a strong tradition, particularly in women’s magazines, of telling stories about individuals who face serious illness or death and reassess their priorities. They decide that the really important things in life are family and friends and health and taking time to smell the roses. It’s one of those stories by which we perpetuate our cultural values, the ones we kid ourselves that we still hold in spite of the reality of our pace of life, the ones we think are really important.
End of the World?
So apparently the world didn’t end on Sunday. Harold Camping admits to being a little mystified as to why his prediction didn’t come to pass.
It’s easy to scoff at people like Camping and his followers, but we live in a society where rapid changes in cultural, social, and economic conditions have left many people lost and bewildered. Deregulation of the financial system in the 1980s, coupled with globalisation, has meant the moving offshore of many low-skilled jobs and that has had a significant effect on employment conditions. Ongoing wars in many places has seen an increase in global migration, including asylum-seeking, and there is an apparent increase in terrorism and other overt acts of religious and political intolerance. On top of this, the tension between tradition and liberal values has widened, including the global gay-pride movement, which Camping singles out as a sign of the impending apocalypse.
Cultural Value and Economics
Last night I went to a lecture by Kim Dalton, director of television for the ABC and Chair of Freeview. The lecture was recorded and hopefully the audio will appear on the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies website in the next days.
The lecture might not have been as “provocative” as some members of the audience suggested, but it was a carefully considered and well argued piece about the role of public service television in the age of convergence, and finished with the familiar and well-rehearsed statement that both of Australia’s public broadcasters are underfunded. Well, no argument about that from me.
But one thing in particular struck me. Dalton spoke briefly about his time in Adelaide in the mid-1970s. He had just finished a degree in drama in the context of a nascent film industry and a growing television industry. The only topic of conversation was Australian culture: what it was, how to develop it, what the role of the media was. He managed to convey the sense of enthusiasm and possibility that he remembered from that time. The enthusiasm of a young country finding its feet and its identity.
Later, in questions, he was asked to justify his position on cultural value versus economic value, and he seemed to me to (perhaps deliberately) misunderstand the question. To Dalton, if I am not mistaken, there is no need to justify cultural value: it is a given, as much as any financial bottom line, and it is important to pursue and to fund it.
And I started wondering, when was it that as a nation we stopped talking about cultural value? When did we abandon conversations about identity for sterile debates about economics and politics? Why is it that discussions of Australian-ness now inevitably lead to claims about cost and benefit? Sure, politicians talk about nothing else, because political discourse has been reduced over the last 20 or 30 years to claims about who are the better economic managers. (I wonder whether this is why Australian politics has not been about to produce a statesman of the calibre of a Mensies or a Whitlam.)
But if economics is all politicians want to talk about, why do we follow suit? I have read very few cultural studies investigations recently that don’t—at least in part—draw of economic considerations as a way of demonstrating value (yes I know, I’ve done it myself).
Wouldn’t it be fun if we all started talking about cultural value, Australian identity, and artistic development as valuable enterprises of their own, and let the accountants worry about the funding?
Earlier this year, a father lost his child. The child, together with his mother, was swept away by the water. At his funeral, attended by many and reported by the media, his father, said “I don’t think I can put into words just how much I’ll miss them”. The child has been hailed as a hero by Australians, who mourn alongside his family.
Late last year, a father lost his child. The child, together with his mother and sister, was swept away by the water. His body has never been found, but his sister’s funeral, attended by few and with attempts by the government to prevent media coverage, was today. Some reports have it that the father has not been allowed to speak at the funeral. Australians have been bickering over whether the government should have wasted taxpayers’ money on flying the remaining members of the family to Sydney for the funeral.
Does the second father’s different language and silenced voice make his suffering any less? What have we come to?
This morning I have seen a report indicating that media did get to cover Nzar’s funeral, and his father did speak to them, despite security seeming to attempt to stop him doing so.
Nevertheless, the political bickering and fallout continues. Constant opposition attacks on the government over spending is bad enough at the best of times, but in this instance it has grubbied the aftermath of a tragic and shameful event in Australia’s immigration history and lowered the dignity of those involved. It is rare that I say this, but for once I appreciate Joe Hockey, who has had the courage and strength to stand against members of his own party in the name of compassion. Good on you Joe.
Merry Christmas Mr Harvey
Nearly Christmas, and that means one thing: being blitzed by desperate retailers trying to maximise profits. Shopping centres have been full of “Christmas Spirit” (that is tacky tinsel decorations and irrelevant carols) for weeks, and forests-worth of paper in the form of catalogues of useless junk are flooding my mailbox on a daily basis.
OK, maybe a bit of “bah humbug” on my part, but every year thousands of families get into financial difficulty because they cannot resist the avalanche of guilt-inducing advertising that implies that they are bad parents if they don’t buy little Johnny the latest electronic gadget that will be broken by New Year.
Organisations like Lifeline have to deal with the fallout of these sorts of issues, and regularly issue press-releases urging caution:
Lifeline Community Care Financial Counsellor Robyn Underwood said the spending frenzy over the holiday season may put some people, without realising it, into a precarious financial position.
“Overspending during the festive season may lead to financial pressures that can have an overflow affect on relationships and may create family conflict – all the things individuals and families want to actually avoid during what’s meant to be a joyful and relaxing period,” said Ms Underwood.
Lifeline urges Queenslanders to spend wisely over the holiday season (Lifeline Queensland)
Did you see that on the evening news? No, neither did I.
A Child is for Life Not Just for Christmas
Walking through the shopping centre the other night and there amongst the silvery-green, glittery mistletoe and the bright, tacky tinsel was the World Vision stall. I leaned over to my family and said, “want to buy a little black boy?” You see, I can’t help it, but every time I see that stand, wherever it is, I’m reminded of the scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood are sitting in the expensive restaurant gesturing at the rich, white man sitting at the next table and shouting, “the girl. How much for the little girl?”. It has to be one of the funniest scenes in film.
So when I pass the World Vision stand, with the faux-framed pictures of all the little black children waiting to be rescued sitting on boxes made to look like shipping crates, I think of Jake and Elwood trying to buy the pretty little blonde girl.
I know, of course, that World Vision actually does vital work with communities and is not in the business of selling children. But in their “sponsor a child” advertising they are in the business of selling a particular idealised image of childhood, and the effectiveness of the campaign relies on an affective response to knowledge of the gap between the reality of the individual (little black child’s) life and the valorised, affluent, white, western ideal.
Narrating Communities: Invented Traditions and Values
It’s the CSAA conference next week, and this is the paper that I will be delivering. It’s an early investigation into a larger project that I’m starting to work on, so any comments or suggestions are welcome.
All I have to do now is write the paper…
Zygmunt Bauman describes the way that the quest for the ‘perfect community’ is always a search for the unobtainable: it is either an unrecoverable past, or an idealised future. Worse, community—which is an image of both security and freedom—can offer us only one of these goals: we can have security from the dangerous forces outside only by giving up some, or most, of our freedoms. We can have freedom, but only by sacrificing most of what distinguishes the community. As an abstract ideal, the ‘real’ community can only ever be, to use Benedict Anderson’s term, ‘imagined.’
But the beauty of an imagined community is that it doesn’t need to worry too much about the practicalities of balancing those contradictory tensions at the core of the concept. Assumptions can be made, prejudices elided, and, as Hobsbawm notes, traditions can be invented. In this way, the image of a community is constructed, drawing on the values and beliefs of the dominant group, and threatening expulsion to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the dominant ideology.
In this paper I look at a number of imagined historical communities that in varying ways create an image of the ideal that Bauman described. From examples of cookbooks that try to create the impression of a community where none really existed, to historical reconstructions that literalise a particular political or historical view, I will consider the assumptions, the exclusions, and the inventions behind these attempts at community in order to examine the underlying values that motivate the constructions of these imagined communities. In this way, I hope to start an exploration of the way in which values are already encoded in material productions that form a significant part of our cultural memory.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes was released in Australia last week, and to celebrate I bring you the second of my excerpts from the book. This section is taken from chapter twenty-one, in the section of the book where we look at the theories behind memes. This excerpt is reproduced with the permission of Alpha Books.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes, Chapter Twenty-One
The message to take from The Selfish Gene was that simple preconditions can lead to complex results – that the underlying chemical processes that cause the gene to behave in a particular way can account for many of the behaviors that we see in plants and animals, and even in ourselves. Dawkins’s points out that most organisms will defend and support their kin over other members of the same species, and that this altruism is due to the fact that kin carry mostly the same genes. Thirty years since its publication, this scientific principle remains unchallenged.
But Dawkins acknowledges that the gene doesn’t have everything its own way, and that human intelligence can overcome the insistence of the selfish gene. A good example is contraception, which defeats the gene’s attempt to replicate itself.
There is another example that Dawkins used. He claimed that there was evolving a new replicator that had the power to defeat the dominance of the gene by encouraging people to consciously act against the blind compulsions of that particle. The meme. The selfish gene urges its host to act in a way that ensures the survival of the gene (and the host, obviously). Aside from the kinship example I mentioned above, this theory doesn’t account for altruism very well – why would a gene’s survival machine destroy itself for the benefit of unrelated genes? But people do sacrifice themselves to save others, they do inconvenience or even endanger themselves for a principle or an ideology. Perhaps someone is inspired by someone’s heroic deed to act similarly in the same circumstances. Perhaps a principle like “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is recognized and believed, and affects the behavior of someone faced by an agonizing decision.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes
File this one under “shameless self-promotion.”
While it is not necessarily anything to do with this blog, long-time readers will be aware that I’ve posted a number of times on ideas that would end up in a general book on memetics that I was writing with American journalist and writer, Damon Brown. I’m happy to say that the book was released this week in the US in the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series from Penguin. Details here.
With permission, I’ve reproduced the opening pages below.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes, Chapter One.
Before the new millennium, calling something “viral” usually meant Yellow Fever or perhaps a nasty cold going around the office. It was a physical thing your body could catch—and something you definitely didn’t want!
We’ve learned in the new Internet age, however, that something viral isn’t necessarily related to our body or even a bad thing. It just means a concept that catches on. As you probably know, an idea can be viral, a video can be viral, a spiritual belief can be viral, and so on.
Before the word viral became modern and hip, there was already a term for these tidbits of culture passed along to others: memes. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? But as you’ll soon discover, the word meme (which rhymes with dream) means much more than just a video of a cat playing the piano on YouTube. Indeed, some scientists believe it ties into our very evolution.