Friday, December 17, 2010

Signing Off For Now

I won't be posting much on this blog over the next few months. More detailed discussion will resume in early May 2011, when Five Wounds is published in the US and UK.

In the meantime, if you have arrived here in search of information on Five Wounds, I recommend the following posts:

Video Interview
Video Introduction
Making of
Indepth interview with Jon and Dan at The View From Here
An Anti-Historical Novel

If you have arrived here in search of information on Pistols! Treason! Murder!, I recommend the following:

Introduction at Rorotoko
Short monologue on Radio National
Punk history
Explanation of the title
Commentary on the first chapter

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Discipline Can Take the Fun Out of History (The Australian, 2007)

Following on from my last post, which reprints the text of an editorial I wrote for The Sun-Herald in 2007, here is a similar piece published in The Australian at about the same time. It's basically the same argument, but it's written in a different style for a different publishing context.

The Australian

April 28-29, 2007 (Weekend Edition)

Discipline can take the fun out of history

It took me about 3 1/2 years to obtain a doctoral thesis. It took me the next 3 1/2 to unlearn all the bad habits I acquired in the process. So why did writing a PhD feel like learning to suppress everything that attracted me to history in the first place?

Hayden White has argued that the transformation of a subject or a literary genre - in this case history - into a university discipline is principally a matter of deciding what is illegitimate: that is, making a list of all the things you are not allowed to do if you want to be considered respectable, qualified and - most important of all - employable. That is a far more important part of the process than establishing a positive set of skills and investigative techniques appropriate to the subject.

By definition, the transformation of history defined as a literary pursuit into history defined as a university subject involved the establishment of professional examinations and qualifications. Anyone who could not pass these exams was then by definition not a real historian. Whether failure implied an excess of imagination or a lack of skill was beside the point.

Postgraduates are taught valuable lessons; for example, paleography (how to read handwritten historical documents), which is only the most basic of the critical skills required for the interpretation of sources written in alien historical contexts. Students are also exposed to a rich body of work written by their predecessors, which contains valuable practical and theoretical insights that prevent them from having to reinvent the wheel. But at the same time they are acculturated (to borrow a piece of jargon from anthropology) into academic life. I used to watch it happen in seminars in Cambridge, which I single out not because Cambridge is an inherently stuffier or cleverer institution than any other university but because there are a lot more students and seminars there, and so the indoctrination is much more blatant. Students listen carefully to their elders and betters and practise asking the right kind of question, one that reveals their erudition rather than their ignorance and does not betray any emotional involvement in the subject (although political commitment is acceptable at times).

Despite the variations in technique and approach among different disciplines in the humanities, there is an identifiable academic style to all of them: an acceptable vocabulary, a way of phrasing questions and structuring papers, a shared understanding of what constitutues an intellectually serious argument, along with some more obvious formal elements such as the use of footnotes and referencing conventions. The precise nature of this shared set of values and conventions evolves from generation to generation, but the primary function of each generation's members is to pass on as much of their cultural inheritance to their successors as they can, to ensure that the culture survives and thus secure their place in its canon.

These academic conventions - and the related practice of using anonymous referees to review work submitted to presses and journals - are ostensibly intended to preserve minimum standards, which they do. But they also encourage rigid conformity. Anonymous refereeing is a particularly vicious process for those who genuinely wish to try something different, as the writer has absolutely no means of defending his or her self against attack from an unidentifiable quarter and no opportunity to bring the pilloried work into the public arena for discussion. As a result, experiments are strangled at birth, as my book would have been but for the intervention of several generous editors (especially those of Rethinking History) who took the unusual step of overruling hostile peer reviews.

As graduate students, we are led to believe that the academic voice is a universal language, a guarantee of comprehension among a world-wide community. Actually it is more like a dialect. Now, there is nothing wrong with that. Obscure languages and dialects have particular powers of expression that make them ideal for analysing previously undreamed-of nuances in subjects that seem self-evidently simple to outsiders. The most famous (and possibly mythical) example is the generous number of words for snow in certain Inuit tongues. Similarly, even the most abstruse article in the most obscure journal may contain important insights, but that does not mean its style should be adopted as a universal standard of judgement.

In essence, I have no problem with the way in which we are taught to write and think as graduate students. It is the equivalent of learning how to draw and model at art school. I use that analogy deliberately because in art school the purpose of that training is to prepare you to move beyond the limits of this basic education and find your own voice. I agree with whoever said that you have the right to break the rules only if you are capable of keeping them. Indeed, I make a point of periodically writing and publishing entirely conventional academic articles in peer-refereed journals just to prove that I can do it, so that if and when I choose to do something different it is clear that it is a deliberate choice and not a question of incompetence. I value the training I received, but why would I want to rewrite my thesis over and over again for the rest of my career? One of the most basic insights of cultural history is to argue that many practices and beliefs are constructed and not naturally given, but historians are seemingly unwilling to apply this obvious insight to their own writing.

The academy is the only place in which the entrance examination - the thesis - marks a definitive statement of the values and techniques that are supposed to define your future written production. This conservatism masks a deep-rooted insecurity that is revealed most clearly by the intolerance of anonymous referees for jokes. I think jokes are useful as a form of criticism, as a way of encouraging greater self-consciousness and scepticism. But to referees, not taking oneself - and by extension, them - seriously is an unforgivable sin.

So, do I long for a return to the days when history was left in the hands of gentlemen amateurs who were more concerned with crafting an elegant phrase than racking up the required number of refereed publications, irrespective of whether anyone read them (and nobody does, not if they can help it)? No. After all, I hold a post within an academic institution and I hope to continue to hold productive debates with my colleagues there for many years to come. Rather, I would like more of us to acknowledge that imagination, creativity, playfulness and, above all, risk-taking and formal experimentation are essential to the survival and growth of history and the humanities in general. As a discipline, we need to become more undisciplined.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Dusting off the Pages of History (The Sun-Herald, 2007)

In 2007, when my first book Pistols! Treason! Murder! came out in Australia, I did several radio interviews and wrote a couple of editorials for newspapers. One of the latter was for The Sun-Herald. I don't really know why they asked, but I said 'Yes' anyway. I thought I owed it to my publisher to accept every such request. Moreover, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I could adapt my style to several different publishing contexts, and write copy to deadline. The result is a bit cartoonish (in the pejorative sense of the word). Nonetheless, I think it's a fun piece.

I found the text online here. Thanks to whoever posted it there.

I also wrote an op-ed. piece for The Australian at approximately the same time. I'll put that up too if I can find it.

Sun Herald

Sunday February 25, 2007

He is our first punk historian. And his tale of a masterful Venetian spy has been praised for pushing boundaries. Damn it, Jonathan Walker writes, history doesn't have to be boring.

HISTORY. It's not exactly rock'n'roll, is it? Imagine a typical historian. I'm betting the figure you see in your head isn't standing under a spotlight dressed in black with his eyes rolled back in his head, as Pentecostal tongues of flame crackle around him and the audience roars its approval.

No, you probably have a hazy image of someone in a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, possibly smoking a pipe.

Why is that?

Poetry has Byron and Baudelaire. The novel has Joyce and Kerouac. Painting has Picasso and Pollock. Where are history's iconoclastic heroes?

After all, it too is an art form, or at least a literary genre. Yes, it has its own distinctive rules and restrictions, the most important of which is accountability to sources. But history still has to be written and, as such, its authors must make choices regarding style and form. Why does no one want to talk about that? Or rather why is it assumed that the form in which history is written is unimportant as well as unchanging?

Tradition and conservatism seem built into the genre. The opening chapter of most doctoral theses is a pointless exercise in ancestor worship known as the "literature review", where the initiate abases himself or herself by reciting everything ever written by anyone on their chosen subject.

And whose idea of a good structure is: "Tell them what you're going to say. Say it, then summarise what you've just said."?

Imagine a detective novel that begins: "According to the precedents established by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, this book will set out to prove that the butler did it by reviewing 10 significant clues".

If academic historians humbly aspire only to contribute to the debate or to advance our understanding of some previously neglected topic, popular historians are equally unadventurous. Either they batter the reader into submission with an unending list of minutiae about kings and battles, or they make whimsical claims for the epoch-defining importance of insignificant nobodies.

Both camps stick to established formulae like glue. There is no risk, and no sense of adventure.

I should admit that my book Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise And Fall Of A Master Spy is also guilty of making exaggerated claims for its hero: the 17th-century Venetian spy Gerolamo Vano. But at least I do so with a degree of facetiousness and cynicism.

The difference is that in going in search of Vano, one of history's most elusive characters, I know I'm playing a game, just as he was. In both cases it's a gambling game. He bet his life; I bet my career. In my case, the rules of the game are clear at any given point, even if I am making some of them up as I go along. In Vano's case, matters are rather murkier. The suspicion remains that his game was rigged.

My subject, then, is not just the spy Vano, but rather how Vano challenged my complacency about the proper way in which to write history.

My main source was Vano's surveillance reports: urgent dispatches from the front line of the 17th-century intelligence war. What are they like? Just like the work of a hack Jacobean playwright: melodramatic, cliched, and often completely implausible.

But if Vano's reports lack psychological subtlety and the richness of expression to be found in the plays written by his contemporary Shakespeare, their meaning is still far from obvious. The problem is that Vano's characters were real people, many of whom were arrested and executed as a consequence of his farcical descriptions in which they foam at the mouth and stamp their feet. So why did anyone take Vano seriously?

One answer may be that if you stick with his reports, weird things start to happen. You begin to doubt your own instincts. His reports just go on and on, in a closed loop of cursing ambassadors and treacherous nobles whose exclamations constantly undercut statements made by their predecessors.

The only moments of light relief in this interpretive bidding war - "I'll see your double-bluff and raise you to a triple!" - are intermittent acts of extreme violence.

If Vano was more than a deluded psychopath - if he was, in fact, an author in control of his material - then surely I had to follow suit in writing about him?

But it cannot be denied that Vano is also an extremely unreliable narrator, as his execution for perjury in 1622 suggests.

And the contents of his reports are impossible to assimilate into a traditional narrative for other reasons: they have no index, no cross-referencing and no explanatory commentary. Worse, the file begins and ends without warning, and at some point it has been stripped. What remains, then, is a mutilated fragment.

The archive containing Vano's file is similarly disorganised. Thousands of other documents survive - ambassadorial dispatches, interrogation transcripts, police reports - but they, too, are hopelessly confusing and convoluted.

So I needed a new kind of history to do Vano justice, in which every detail is distinct and potentially meaningful, as indeed it is in Vano's reports. The typefaces, layout, illustrations, rhythm and structure of my book all had to become part of its argument.

The key question is not, "How can I justify this?" Rather it is, "Why not?" Why not use comic strips in a historical biography? Why not use transcripts of imaginary conversations to introduce background information? The challenge is to dramatise the problems raised by the evidence and in doing so escape the cliched succession of one damn thing after another.

Like Vano, I'd rather risk everything than play it safe.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Digital Editing, Digital Humanities: A Symposium at the University of Sydney

I shall be one of the participants in the symposium Digital Editing, Digital Humanities, which takes place in the Woolley Common Room, Woolley Building, University of Sydney, tomorrow (Friday 10 Dececmber 2010), from 9.30-5.00ish. The symposium has been organised by Mark Byron and William Christie. Further information is available on Mark Byron's blog. I'm on in the afternoon as part of a group presentation.

Plenary Speaker: Bethany Nowviskie, University of Virginia

This event brings together scholars, artists, and archivists working within the digital domain, both in Sydney and further afield. A primary focus of the symposium is to raise awareness of the variety of digital projects currently in progress in the Digital Humanities, and to discuss the kinds of digital resources available to scholars.

The symposium aims to showcase projects across the humanities, and to foster discussion of potential collaboration, funding, and the best use of available and potential resources. Three sessions will follow the plenary:

1. scholarly editing of medieval and modern literary texts;

2. projects in the visual arts, Buddhist Studies, history, the culture of robotics;

3. a roundtable concerning resources on campus, including SETIS, Heurist and Fisher e-Scholarship.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Typographic Design in Jean-Luc Godard's Films

The talk above is by Laura Forde. For more on the same topic, see this blog post by Andrea Hyde.

I have been watching the Godard films under discussion recently as part of the preparation / research for a new graphic project I am working on with Dan Hallett.

Friday, December 3, 2010

'Little Dorrit' by Christine Edzard (1987)

[Originally posted on Literary Minded:]

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was never my home, not after my mother died. I couldn’t stand it there, in my father’s home, in the dark there, with the recessed windows and the ceilings, so low I used to bang my head on the doorjambs. The smell was what really used to get to me, as if it had seeped into the stone floors.

Child of an unfortunate father.

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was no longer my home. I left for Liverpool, knowing that I would only be there a few months, until I went north to university in October. I had no job and no money, but an older friend had just bought a gutted house that he was planning to renovate. I could stay there in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

A delicate appeal for a small temporary accommodation.

There was a streetlamp directly outside my window, which had no curtains. I turned the bare lightbulb off before I undressed, and I slept under the orange glow of sodium, on the floor, in a sleeping bag, on cushions I borrowed from the sofa downstairs. I took the cushions back downstairs every morning.

I shared the house with three other young men: two mechanics and a binman, who were in the habit of lying around watching television and eating takeaway food when they got home, in their workclothes, lying on the same sofa I used for my bedding. So the cushions were never especially clean.


Some things in the house worked. The toilet in the bathroom flushed, and there was an electric shower mounted over the bath that emitted a thin, feeble stream, which alternated between scalding hot and lukewarm as the circuit breaker kicked in and out. The cold tap in the kitchen also worked. But that was it for water. You had to boil it on the gas stove if you wanted it really hot, and most of the washing took place in the kitchen sink.

Faculties evidently decaying.

The boards on the kitchen floor had been ripped up in preparation for redoing the plumbing, exposing the gas pipes feeding the cooker, and the only heat source in the house was a fire in the living room, the same room with the sofa and the television. The electricity was supplied by a meter system, into which coins had to be fed regularly.

Tuppence please.

Nobody had figured out the local council’s garbage collection system, but there was a backyard, so whenever a garbage bag filled up, one of us tied it off and threw it out the back door. No-one dared to go out in the yard after dark.

The flies trouble you, don’t they me dear?

It was entertaining enough for a couple of months. I was glad to get away in October, but it was still the only available place to stay when I came back to Liverpool after my first term at university. I didn’t want to go to my father’s home. I couldn’t go back there. He wasn’t speaking to me. So I was back sleeping on the smelly sofa cushions. Still, it wasn’t so bad. It’s never bad with people who care about you.

I’m a friend. Remember?

A film version of Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit was part of the Christmas television schedule that year. It was a six-hour adaptation, shown in two separate three-hour parts.

I decide to give it a go. Thirty minutes later, I’m hooked, but there’s hardly any credit left on the electricity meter, and there are no fifty-pence coins anywhere in the house.

Nobody’s to blame. Noise, fatigue, a moment’s inattention.

‘Turn everything off except the television’, I say. ‘All the lights, the fridge, don’t take a shower, don’t use the microwave, don’t wash your clothes, don’t dry your hair, don’t listen to music. If the power cuts before the film ends, I’m going to go crazy’.

Paid to squeeze. Squeeze to pay.

I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t even guess how it’s going to end – except that probably somebody is going to get married, and probably somebody else is going to die.

‘What are you watching?’
Little Dorrit’.
‘How long?’
‘Three hours’.
‘Three hours? Bloody hell’.
‘Six, actually. Two parts’.
‘Are you mad?’
‘Humour me. I want to know what happens’.

Pancks the gypsy. Fortune-telling.

Another thirty minutes later, I’m shivering in the twilight glow of the television when the doorbell rings.

‘Can you get that?’
‘Merry Christmas!’, someone outside says. ‘What’s up?’
‘Sssh! We’re watching Little Dorrit!’
‘What’s Little Dorrit?’
‘Come in. I’ll explain’.

We watch Little Dorrit, together.

The meter turns, infinitesimally slowly.

How can you speak of forever to a maimed creature like me?

The story advances, faster.

[All phrases in Arial are excerpts of dialogue taken from the film version of Little Dorrit, dir. Christine Edzard (1987).]