‘The most fucking intense, crazy, rock ’n’ roll thing you could be writing about’

Essay co-winner, Fair Australia Prize

In the summer of 2013 I had a nightmare. At that time the cities of Australia were scorching in temperatures in the forties and immense bushfires had come to ravage the southern part of the continent year after year. For months I had been plagued by dreams of pursuit and murder, and in the unbearable summer heat my mind drifted in and out of sleep like flotsam near a desolate shore. I had thrown off the thin sheet covering me and in the midst of a dream in which I was haunted by a fear that I could not place, I heard someone outside of it say the word halal in a sinister tone and I woke up. The room was empty of course, but I was convinced that there had been someone standing over my bed.

When I first began working in the area of family violence the effect on me was so startling that walking the streets of my local town became a profoundly illuminating experience, like having one’s senses plunged for an instant into a Hieronymus Bosch landscape. I began to read immense and complicated stories of loss in the faces of everyone I saw. Ordinary passers-by ceased to exist. Each person became a vector of raw experience and sensation that I had not before dared to encounter.

These sudden flashes of frightening awareness, like the sheet lightning of storms seen at a great distance – lightning that often seemed in that burning summer to haunt the hills beyond my house – showed me that to be confronted with another human being was to encounter a doorway to a realm of unimaginable events and desires, before which one could only adopt an attitude of trembling and compassion.

As Antjie Krog pointed out in Country of My Skull, her account of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to hear the innumerable intimate stories of violence to which ordinary people have been exposed is to feel like you are living in a double world. The material processes of society continue as though they didn’t exist. In fact they create the very violence on which they subsist.

I lay in bed and tacked my mind onto the tail end of the halal dream as it drifted away from me. It is when dreams wake us suddenly that some part of them still seems to be present, as intangible as the smell of flowers. I understood that the part of my mind that produced my dream-life was more powerful than I imagined, more alert and more watchful. My dreaming mind, in its contempt for my efforts to think about the inner lives of others, like a politician who despises any expression of weakness, had noted my waking, taken false ownership of it and posited a malign presence that I would face when I awoke. And, in viewing my self from the point of view of a bedside watcher, my dreaming mind had observed the body sweating a little on the bed like meat on a slab, and muttered ‘halal’ a little salaciously, as though I had been an object of ritual slaughter.

My dream-use of the term halal as a sinister threat said to me that the incessant public demonising of Muslims that has occurred since the September 11 attacks, and the descriptions of ordinary religious practices as primitive rituals of the savage and ignorant, had perhaps percolated within me a little, as much as I revolted against them, attaching themselves to childhood anxieties of murder and kidnapping where they stuck like ticks.

It takes immense resources to construct and inflict the violence and cruelty that capitalism manifests so comprehensively in both its material practices of production and its creation of psychic life. These cruelties have a specific characteristic that binds itself to the ways we speak to and think of each other: only the one who has the power matters.

Understanding this, and knowing how it penetrates into the mind and even into dreams, is to begin to see what it is like to inhabit a relationship of intimate terrorism, a terrorism enacted by men that, in Australia, kills a woman every five days. Things can be done to you in the most secret parts of your life that you cannot stop. And in this understanding is concealed the truth of what it is to live within, and resist, twenty-first-century capitalism.

The incessant rhetoric of fear and panic is continually amplified. In its wake come the methodologies of emergency and practices of intimidation and enforced deprivation. These always map themselves onto distinct nodes: you are to blame for the violence that others inflict on you, and your distress and powerlessness constitute a failure of your very self.

In the nuclear family – the quintessential unit of capitalism that none of us can escape – is found all of capitalism’s ruthless economies and secret ways of inflicting violence, and all the ways in which people try to resist its colonising and predatory states of mind.

The Spanish intellectual Cesar Rendueles remarked in an interview that ‘we live in increasingly individualised societies, characterised by weak ties that generate many psychological, ethical, cultural and political problems. Market competition destroys the social fabric, the anthropological basis for the survival of any group of people’. But I wonder if this is a sort of under-reading, and that the pain and difficulty of living under late capitalism arise because people incessantly try to build ties to each other, only to have them relentlessly torn apart or betrayed by a simulacrum of human connection (say, Facebook) that is actually a modality of control.

A summary description of the subjectivities that capitalism creates can obliterate that which it is trying to reveal, like napalming an entire forest in order to kill invasive weeds. One has to continually find new ways to name capitalism’s rapacious structures and the ways they inhabit us as they continually mutate into new shapes, like the alien in John Carpenter’s film The Thing that adopts the form of the organism that it devours, eventually transforming into an amalgam of them all, an incomprehensibly functioning hybrid of hideously familiar shapes.

A few months after the halal dream I acquired, simultaneously, a book by the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado and a copy of the film Nostalgia for the Light by the Chilean director Patricio Guzman.

Salgado’s photographs, both intensely realistic and as fantastic as something out of Dante, are often images doubled: a starving exhausted child standing before a dead tree; a truck crammed with men driving out of the frame of the photograph, behind them a hillside settlement that at first glance looks like a crowded encampment but is actually a cemetery; children curled up lying together locked like vertebrae, next to a game made of fragments of bone; two young girls leaning against each other as they walk across a desolate landscape, their silhouette mirrored in the line of mountains behind them; hundreds of men slaving in pits like ants; the continual repetition of bodies, entwined hands, silhouettes. And Salgado has also somehow joined with the subjects of his work who all appear to have offered themselves to him, collaborating in the depictions of their own faces.

Salgado’s images gave me the uncanny feeling that I was looking at pictures taken on another planet and yet many of them were taken in parts of Latin America and Africa, whose night skies should have been instantly familiar to me. But this unsettling feeling was almost instantly replaced by the thought that the faces in Salgado’s photographs belonged to people I already knew, as though I were looking at pictures of my mother and father, my daughter or my closest friends.

When I discovered Salgado’s photographs, it struck me that there are two ways of being coerced by neoliberal capitalism: as a slave, or as someone complicit in the oppression of slaves. There are no free agents.

In its rigidity and its overwhelming addiction to forms of absolute control is also located the fragility of the corporate surveillance state. What is intriguing about late capitalism is the malignancy toward, and fear of, unfrightening things: desperate refugees, dissenting children, sole parents, abused women, outspoken communities and marginalised groups, divergent sexualities, the ill and so on. It is not threatened by violence or a show of force. In the use of physical violence and regimes of punitive control lies its zone of greatest comfort.

In Nostalgia for the Light, the mothers of those ‘disappeared’ by Pinochet’s security forces painstakingly search the burning plain of the Atacama Desert for the bones of their murdered children whose bodies were dumped there by earthmoving equipment. Occasionally one of the mothers finds a bone fragment; these women have become very knowledgeable about human anatomy and skilled at identifying bone types.

It is easy to describe the mothers’ search as a hopeless yet moving endeavour driven by an unending grief, a kind of symptom of despair. It seems to me, though, that resistance knows no end. In the most desperate and hopeless of circumstances, people continue to resist; perhaps women and children resist most of all. As the American feminist poet Adrienne Rich put it, for women to question the universal social order necessarily makes them the most radical thinkers.

In her incandescent little book on Courtney Love and the second Hole album, Live Through This, Anwen Crawford tears into all the ways in which rock and roll searches for an imagined authenticity while remaining an enclave of male privilege and a bastion of capitalist endeavour.

After attending a gig by The Raincoats’ Gina Birch, Crawford writes that the show ‘made me think for a long time about the possibilities – so rarely glimpsed – of a popular music that is open to the rhythms of domestic life; the feminised sphere of child rearing, housework and intimate, familial relationships’. Crawford also quotes a Hole fan, Nicole Solomon, who frames Crawford’s questioning in another way: ‘Motherhood isn’t a rock subject, and Courtney made motherhood the most fucking intense, crazy, rock ’n’ roll thing you could be writing about.’

Of course motherhood is not a defining characteristic of women – but it is usually invoked as though it is. It is an identity in which women can be imprisoned whether they are mothers or not. Adrienne Rich said that the experience of motherhood radicalised her, and if we follow the trail of motherhood as both a potential prison and the most fucking intense, crazy, rock ’n’ roll thing anyone could write about, it can become clear that the policing of women’s bodies and mental life is where many sites of resistance lie: women’s right to choose abortion; women’s right to avoid motherhood entirely; women’s dependence on casual and part-time employment; the use of feminine ideals as a way to control women in relationships and shape families; relationships as a site of punishment for women who leave them; motherhood as a metaphor for the emotional and psychological labour that women do; motherhood as a necessary support of a nation’s economic growth; the terror of divergent sexualities; the dependence of male power on all the above.

If we want to examine ideas such as precarious employment, it’s important to eviscerate them and turn them inside out, and get our hands into the blood and entrails. These are not just social problems with technical solutions. And in gutting and flensing those ideas that might seem purely technical or economic we may discover a lot of uncomfortable, bloody subcutaneous truths. It’s not enough to say, like Rendueles, that ‘we live in increasingly individualised societies’ or that ‘market competition destroys the social fabric’. Both these things are undoubtedly true, and yet, it doesn’t seem a transgressive-enough analysis. I can’t feel it in my throat, as though I’m about to vomit up something that nobody can digest.

Capitalism initiates nightmares, shapes nightmares, and markets and sells nightmares, and is itself a nightmare from which it seems impossible to wake up. It cannot be re-ordered, made kinder, or made to care. Resistance is the only option if you don’t want to be turned into sausage meat. And people resist everywhere, continually. There are new social movements happening all the time. Most of them are very small, and they die off leaving only faint traces – but large mass movements are built out of precisely those traces and marginalised states. What else could they be built of ?

Precarious, casualised work doesn’t just create an underclass. It creates a fragmented series of unstable enclaves, in which women and children are the most badly affected, and mandates them as templates for material and inner life. Those who have experienced sustained violence in childhood often say that it teaches them to adhere to the unsafe or claustrophobic experience. It is a ruthless and pitiless idea, and it is true. Instead of choosing the food it is safer to take the knife. In the institutions run by Australian religious and social-welfare bodies, where for most of the twentieth century thousands and thousands of children were violated, beaten and humiliated, each child struggled to find a neutral and invisible place where they could not be singled out and hunted down. Every child was pushed to beg while knowing that it was critical to avoid being seen begging.

Naming the mutating body of capitalism isn’t easy. Descriptions of its anatomy, however, are also the shape of the ligatures of resistance. If we look at capitalism from the point of view of those who bear the brunt of its increasingly exploitative economies – women and children – we will find something of that shape revealed.

Beneath the violence and discrimination that women and children are burdened with, it’s not too difficult to see sexism stacked on top of gender inequality. Gender inequality is built on, and of, male entitlement and privilege. The whole brutalist edifice is laid on a bedrock of violence-supporting masculinities.

Violence-supporting masculinities are wired into capitalist economics and power. The dynamics of family violence, the horror show that is Australian suburban life, teach us about how capitalism works and also how to resist and understand it. Capitalism, a machine devised by men and still run by men, maps the power structures of families and family violence intimately. It is not an aspect of it, or an epiphenomenon. In the control and terror acted out by the abusive man against his family lies the anatomy of capitalism’s body and its methods of governance, as clearly revealed as if it were a flayed carcass. Men who are violent and abusive are not deviant. They are simply over-conforming. Any rethinking or restructuring of the workplace and of identities that fails to address this is doomed to heartbreaking failure.

In fact Rendueles’ statements about ‘increasing individualism’ and ‘market competition’ make a lot more radical sense if one adds ‘because they are violence-supporting masculinities’. A ‘fair Australia’ is an Australia that acknowledges this and takes it as a central, non-negotiable plank for change, and looks to create institutions that support all the millions of ways that women, children and men attempt to resist that, and furthermore, invents ways for them to do so.

In her essay On the Abolition of All Political Parties, Simone Weil points out, with relentless logic, that ‘the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit’. Consequently, ‘every party is totalitarian – potentially, and by aspiration’. The political party is an entity that stands for nothing more than the practice of ‘power over’. As Weil concludes ‘the party becomes in fact its own end’. Weil says that this is such an obvious but mind-boggling idea that anyone who encounters it is likely to question their own sanity.

New social movements never look like those of the past or the present. And here the Left often splinters. The Right has successfully convinced the Left that only disciplinary power matters, and that any social movement for change has to weld itself to that idea. If people resist everywhere, that’s because everybody can. But the Left, in its obsession with the solidifying of its own disciplinary power, has had a lot of trouble grasping this.

The Left’s frustration with the lack of mass political action can often be framed as the populace’s apathy – that people don’t care, or are too concerned about themselves or are too embittered by the actions of politicians and so on.

Perhaps it is not that people don’t care, as the psychoanalyst Renee Lertzman wrote in a brilliant 2013 essay on climate change, but that they care too much, and this caring, politically smothered and lacking adequate channels and structures of expression, becomes an unbearable anxiety that can easily be displaced onto other fears created by those damaged ruthless people we call politicians.

I once had a conversation with an activist who when presented with a concrete solution to a genuine political problem he was experiencing said, ‘The problem I have with that is that it’s too boring to be true.’

The thing about progressive radical political change is that it is boring. You just get to live your life. It’s radically non-utopian. Nobody changes by remaining the same, even though this is a common wish. Revolution doesn’t mean we get to keep all the goodies we have now but feel better about it. And those who have experienced extreme political repression, torture and violence, often say that what they seek is the right to an ordinary life, where relationships, love and respect are prioritised. That’s what makes the revolutionary project: the radical achievement of unexceptional ends.


This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

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