July in nonfiction

7A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet – Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore (University of California Press, 2018)

If you have ever sought a book about the rise and consequences of capitalism that is both deeply, morally serious and a rollicking good read, then search no more. This narrative’s truly global sweep is a welcome antidote to triumphalist, anglocentric tales of the Protestant work ethic and suchlike, and the central argument about the role of nature in human economic activity is persuasive.

The authors take issue with the use of the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe our current geological era, arguing that ‘modern history has, since the 1400s, unfolded in what is better known as the Capitalocene’. For Patel and Moore, capitalism is ‘not just… an economic system but a way of organizing the relationships between humans and the rest of nature’. In particular, capitalism ‘gave us the idea not only that society was relatively independent of the web of life but also that most women, Indigenous people, slaves, and colonized people everywhere were not fully human… They were part of Nature, treated as social outcasts – they were cheapened.’ 

The facts assembled here range from the quirky (there is a variety of mosquito that has adapted to the London Underground ‘to such an extent that it can no longer interbreed with its topside counterparts’) to the horrifying: ‘There are more humans in forced labor in the twenty-first century than were transported by the Atlantic slave trade.’ The story ends, however, on a note of radical hope.


36012486‘Me Write Myself’: The Free Aboriginal Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land at Wybalenna 1832-47 – Leonie Stevens (Monash University Publishing, 2017)

This story of the Aboriginal men, women and children of Van Diemen’s Land (VDL) who were exiled to Flinders Island during the 1830s and 1840s privileges the voices of Aboriginal people over those of the colonisers and reinforces the need to rid oneself of preconceived ideas: the ‘monsters of the mind’, such as ‘scientific racism’. Stevens prioritises texts by VDL people themselves, and there is a substantial body to draw from, including newspapers that were circulated on Flinders Island and a petition to Queen Victoria (from ‘your Free Children’). Stevens argues for the importance of the petition and subsequent letters that show ‘the genesis of a communal, political response to the problems of colonisation’.

Her emphasis on her subjects’ agency does not preclude examination of the structures that shaped their lives – she situates her book in a global context in the age of empire. The VDL people were of course ‘confined to an island and unable to leave’, and death by disease was appallingly commonplace. The author argues however that their repeated claims to being a free people should be viewed as ‘an act of courage’.

Particularly noteworthy is the book’s emphasis on women, including ‘the Sealing Women’, who are not seen as one-dimensional victims: they storm through the pages of the book, ‘refusing to have their movements controlled by men’, using humour, spreading gossip, refusing to undertake housework and attempting uprisings. The picture painted is vivid and colourful: Stevens successfully evokes Flinders Island not as a ‘mere graveyard’ where an exiled people awaited death, but as a ‘busy, noisy and complex place’.


dissentDissent: The Student Press in 1960s Australia – Sally Percival Wood (Scribe Publishing, 2017)

This study of student newspapers and related student activism from 1961 to 1972 skillfully evokes the terror of the draft looming over young men during the Vietnam War, the frustration of living in a tightly censored society, the experiences of those on the 1965 Freedom Rides and the sexism with which women students contended.

The analysis is less sure-footed as the author considers the contemporary era: for instance, the author criticises a recent edition of Lot’s Wife for its use of the term ‘people of colour’, describing this very commonly used phrase, often employed as a self-description, as ‘uncomfortably reminiscent of the terminology used by eugenicists’. This is not to say that the term is not open to critique, but that such criticism would merit more than a sentence. Wood also suggests that modern student publications were ‘incomprehensible to an earlier crusading generation for whom politics lay at the centre of everything’. This is surely a generalisation, and indeed earlier she had noted that even during the 1960s ‘a vast number of university students were not highly motivated politically’.

Nevertheless, Dissent makes for an absorbing read and, refreshingly, does not simply glorify the student press and its (often male) heroes. Wood notes that some of the material that fell foul of Australia’s anachronistic censorship laws made light of sexual assault and that undergraduate humour around sex was bold but silly: ‘attitudes towards women and sex still seemed to exist in a world of fantasy’. She observes that before women could truly assert themselves, ‘the primacy of the heterosexual white male on university campuses had to be somewhat diluted’, and I wonder to what extent more dilution is still required.


On Borrowed Time (online)On Borrowed Time – Robert Manne (Black Inc. 2018)

This substantial collection is sorted into themes, and the section on ‘Australian Politics’ heralds the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd-Abbott-Turnbull parade of recent years. These essays suffer by comparison with those that consider, for instance, the urgency of climate change: the fault is not Manne’s but rather the aggressive banality of our parliamentary politics.

The essays are stimulating rather than soothing and there is fodder here for argument. For instance, in his controversial about-take on asylum seeker policy, in which he criticises the left for a lack of political realism, Manne writes that despite ‘occasional political hiccups… one of the more remarkable achievements of Australian history is the seamless transformation of white Australia into a multicultural and multiracial society since the early 1970s’. I wonder whether it has felt so seamless to Australians from non-Anglo backgrounds, or if they would also describe (for instance) Pauline Hanson’s political career in such benign terms.

The luminous titular essay – that explores Manne’s cancer and the removal of his larynx – is a must read, and its tributes to hospital staff are particularly moving. The example of the heavily pregnant rehab speech therapist who bent to wipe up Manne’s phlegm with ‘delicacy, grace and good cheer’ will stay with me, for it is rare to encounter such acknowledgments of the unglamorous everyday work of care. Another highlight is ‘Name Ten’, Manne’s j’accuse to Andrew Bolt for his mean-spirited and disingenuous response to the stolen generations; simply brilliant.


storyThe Story of Shit – Midas Dekkers, trans. Nancy Forest-Flier (Text Publishing, 2018)

This is a fascinating journey that touches on history, biology, culture and environment as well as an ode to ‘one of the simple pleasures that make life worthwhile’. The narrative ventures across disciplines but largely steers clear of politics, leaving something of a gap. For instance, Dekkers writes that the joy of shitting ‘is democratically divided: anyone can retreat to a sanitary confessional from time to time in order to reappear physically purified.’ Given the lack of access to clean and safe facilities worldwide, particularly for women, it is hard to see crapping as a truly democratic recreation.

You don’t pick up a book about faeces expecting delicacy, but Dekkers’ tone was also occasionally off-putting, as where he muses that ‘[e]veryone guards their throat like a virgin guards her vagina’, adding that ‘there’s a set of teeth behind the lips of the mouth which victims of sexual assault might have found helpful… between their other set of lips’. Perhaps these sorts of jokes are more amusing in Dutch and some of the humour has been lost in translation; I’m more inclined to think that they’re just not funny.

The Story of Shit is stuffed with intriguing facts: Marie Antoinette was ‘so enthusiastic about the poo produced by her son, the dauphin… that she launched a whole yellow-green fashion under the name caca de dauphin.’ There are also keen insights. Dekkers observes that ‘[i]f interest in the anal is childish, it’s the perfect fit for our age of infantilising’; he’s onto something there.


Image: Forest fire in Mae Hong Son Province, March 2010 / Wiki

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Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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