Review – Trouble: Evolution of a Radical/Selected Writings

Trouble: Evolution of a Radical/Selected Writings 1970–2010
Kate Jennings
Black Inc

Kate JenningsKate Jennings suggests that the subtitle of her new book of collected writings could be regarded by some as an overstatement, and that ‘Devolution of a Radical’ may have been a more accurate choice. Jennings’ trajectory as a political activist began in 1970 with a blistering speech on the front lawn of Sydney University in which she sprayed spittle on the patriarchy and, incidentally, the Vietnam War. Throughout the following decades she wrote poetry, journalism, novels and speeches for Wall Street bankers. That’s right, Wall Street bankers. But the journey from hairy-legged leftie feminist to Manhattan boardroom communications consultant did not dampen Jennings’ zeal for feisty engagement, as was evident in her Quarterly Essay American Revolution, published during the lead up to the US Presidential campaign last year. Mind you, she did not go as far as Naomi Wolf, who warned of an imminent military coup, but Jennings certainly let fly against the Bush administration and its legacy from the perspective of an Australian who has lived in the US for many years, several of which were spent at the epicentre of the global financial meltdown.

Trouble collects a wide-ranging sample of Jennings’ writings, stitched together with authorial commentary, and presents them in lieu of a conventional memoir, which, she suggests, could have been a problematic project for her and maybe others too. Jennings has had her share of misery and grief during her lifetime. Her struggle with alcoholism and the loss of her husband to Alzheimer’s both feature in this collection, the latter having been at the core of her critically acclaimed novel Moral Hazard. I had the sense that there was much in her life she would prefer not to revisit too closely, despite her je ne regret rien upper lip. This would count her as typical. Who of us wants to dig up old bones and lay them out for others to pick over?

The strongest suit in the anthology is the Jennings voice: strident, articulate and erudite in the eclectic manner of a restlessly enquiring mind. Jennings’ style is so reliant on voice that the ideas, though often very compelling, have an improvisatory feel, as if she is jamming on her theme, synapses in hyperdrive. As an essayist she is the antithesis of the considered but no less passionate voice of, say, an Inga Clendinnin; and as a novelist, though the mode is more measured than her non-fiction style, she is miles away from the restrained elegance of a Shirley Hazzard, her fellow expat whom she obviously admires greatly and whose wonderful interview with Jennings appears in the collection. Kate Jennings is unapologetically in your face and she has a lot to say.

It is the combination of the iconoclast and her rather more fragile shadow self that makes Jennings so compelling as a person on paper.

Reading Trouble made me reflect on what it meant to be radical in 2010. It was easier back in 1970 when long hair for guys, hairy armpits for girls, a moratorium badge, a Jimi Hendrix poster and a joint were bold signifiers of a burgeoning counterculture in vehement opposition to a politically conservative status quo. In the pluralistic first decade of the new millennium, it is rather more difficult to make stylistic statements of radicalism, notwithstanding the difference between looking and actually being radical. Even the word itself, ‘radical’, sounds old-fashioned, retroactive, more apposite to the extreme Right of politics than to the ‘progressive Left’ that once owned it. I have images of Timothy McVeigh in a ‘coonskin cap carrying an AK47. Dick Cheney is radical.

In 2010, the notion of Australian radicalism is often tinged with nostalgia for something grander and perhaps nobler. We have been lulled by a combination of relative affluence and the hyperactivity it takes to sustain it. Jennings points to the intervention of French gender and literary theory as a fracture zone and there is no doubt that the language of post 68 political and cultural discourse alienated many of those who had honed their progressive views in the long shadow of state communism. But as Jennings says, she doesn’t see Derrida in the remainder bins and I would add that she is unlikely to find Cixous, Kristeva, Foucault or Baudrillard there either because, for those who were not put off by the language of French ‘champagne activism’, these writers and thinkers staged a profound and historic intervention.

A great many people in western nations today are looking for organised leadership that champions a broad agenda based on sound environmental principles, ethical business practice and viable socio-economic reform. In Australia, GetUp! has 350,000 members. The Greens continue to rise as a political force and may well hold the balance of power in the next federal Senate. Julia Gillard and Lindsay Tanner are undoubtedly the ALP’s best performers and talk of a Gillard leadership shows that the party is aware of the underlying leftward trend in the electorate.

A fundamental shift is underway in Australian political culture.

Popular movements must strive for consensus and now may be the precise time in contemporary Australian history when, in the wake of widespread disillusionment generated by the GFC, like-minded organisations and individuals could lay aside minor differences and come together to talk with the aim of consolidating common ground. Think for a moment of all the fine minds and voices – intellectuals, community workers, educators, unionists and advocates – yet to sit at the table together to discuss an alternative vision for this country. Think of the wake up call it would send to the ALP. National Summit, anyone? May I suggest Kate Jennings as a keynote speaker?

Boris Kelly

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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  1. Great review Boris. I’ve tried to buy this book twice (probably in the wrong suburbs) and will persist. I definitely think you’re right about it being harder to be radical these days. Fighting for change often means being in for the long haul with slick campaigns that have to appeal to the polies and establishment that you’re trying to extract change from. Mind you, I was heartened today when I was walking through the city of Melbourne and came across a group of people protesting outside KFC – complete with megaphone and mantra – about the appalling treatment of the chickens KFC ‘harvest’ to supply their diners with. In a word, it did seem, radical.

    I do wish I agreed more with your optimism about a fundamental shift in Australian political culture to the left. I worry we could so easily slip into the fear of losing the wealth and comfort we’ve obtained and, in that circumstance, vote in someone ‘as thick’, if I can describe him as that, as Tony Abbott.

    1. Hi Finn. Thanks for the comments.I can see why you were heartened by the KFC mini demo.I learned a lot from observing the demonstrations prior to the Iraq invasion in 2003 which were arguably the largest global expression of citizen opposition to a war in human history and yet were ignored by the government in this country. I think this shocked a lot of people accustomed to traditional modes of protest. The success of groups like GetUp! is encouraging though. Witness the Obama campaign’s reliance on similar forms of activism and fund raising.

      On your last point, there was an interesting piece in the weekend Sydney Morning Herald by Peter Hartcher in which he outlines the very strong electoral position the Greens are in. It is highly likely that they will gain the balance of power in the Senate – based on voting patterns in the last election – and that may have a profound effect on our political culture because it will shift the party to a centre-left position and thereby make its ideas for sustainable change more amenable to the average voter. So I don’t think my optimism is without some basis in fact but I take your point, it can be disheartening at times.

      Finally, I do not regard Tony Abbott as thick, though I know you are understandably being facetious. I have great respect for Mr Abbott’s intelligence and his political skills in the Machiavellian sense. It’s just that I do not agree with his tactic of casting the Opposition as a force for blocking any and every intitiative put forward by the government. I also believe the electorate is tiring of these kinds of tactics from both major parties. Consensus politics based on the common good is a better recipe, in my view.

      Thanks Finn. It’s good to know you’re there. So far it may be just the two of us at the national summit.

      1. Hi Boris, couldn’t help but put up another comment given the poll this morning boosting the Greens’ position. Thank you for encouraging me to be positive about politics and, indeed, your words, as it turns out, were prophetic to say the least.

        One thought on Tony Abbott. You’re generous to say I’m being facetious in regard to his intelligence and yes, you’re right. Calling him thick is not what I meant, let alone being extremely ineloquent. But while I concede he is politically astute … intelligence is not a word I can attribute to him. I find it appalling that we have someone in such high office who holds so many uninformed and out-of-date views, not to mention his moralistic and often hypocritical statements. I pretty sure this means we agree. And I’m going forward with the hope that the Greens will gain the balance of power in the Senate.

        So thanks too, for you being out there!

        1. Hi Finn,
          Thanks for the comment and yes I think we do agree.
          I’m encouraged by today’s Newspoll but it is unlikely
          those high figures (16%) will be sustained by the
          Greens, in my view.

          I do,however, think there will be a Green balance of
          power in the Senate. But on the other hand we could
          end up with a hung parliament which could favour
          the Coalition, as recently suggested by Michelle Grattan. Stand by for an attack on the Greens from the Abbott camp.

          The decline in Rudd’s popularity can be clearly traced
          to the policy shift on the ETS. All downhill since
          then which is why Green support has risen. That’s

          The thing that troubles me most at the moment is
          the deterioration of political language. Orwell’s
          observations still apply. However, I think the
          increase in the speed of message delivery and
          processing is causing a widespread dumbing down
          and volitility of public debate. The clash between Rudd’s technocratic, corporatist language and the Abbott-Joyce populist response does not serve the public interest at all.

          Abbott is a very smart guy who is fully aware of the effects of his actions and comments. His strategy is
          based on some very old chestnuts of communications

          I hope to post something on this subject in the near
          future. As US Republican pollster Frank Luntz says:
          “It’s not what you say, it what people hear.”

          Thanks again, Finn. Nice to know you are there too!

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