Trouble: Evolution of a Radical/Selected Writings 1970–2010
Kate 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?