Can’t find the car keys

Out of my Head, Tim Parks, Harvill.

Tim Parks goes to a conference in Germany to write about whether science is now a ‘religion’ (whatever that night mean). He decides he is more interested in the phenomenon of consciousness. But let’s take for granted for a moment the clichéd modern definitions of science and religion, and there is a relation in this duality to the sides of consciousness – we think of the mind as rational, but we are pulled by dark forces – hidden motivations, reactions, tendencies, experiences. The mind sounds like the soul. It is in us, it is us, housed in our body, but not physical. At one point Parks compares laboratories to churches, removed somewhat from everyday life, but peering into the mysteries of that life. Theories of consciousness probe into the nature of reality – is it in our heads? Or somewhere else? (Or illusory?) This indeed is what Parks is interested in, and wrestles with in Out of my Head. How do we understand consciousness, the rush of sensations and the awareness and reflection on those sensations? Can the ordinary person (whoever that is) who’s not a neuroscientist or philosopher of mind make sense and fit it to current theories? And in this more subjective, popular account he, perhaps inadvertently, but rightly, focuses on personal experience. When it comes to consciousness, the scientific method of stepping back and being objective becomes lacking, as consciousness is connected to feelings, the classic case of qualia. It is good advice to study yourself when thinking about consciousness.

Anyway, Parks is taken by the theory, championed by his friend, that we must counterintuitively think of consciousness as ‘out there’ in the world – somehow entangled in objects out there and non-existent without the world, spread across brain and world. This certainly complicates the idea of qualia. If consciousness is ‘out there’, how can my feelings, which are accessible only to me, also be? He seems to like the contrary nature of this theory, as well as its explaining away of the idea that we can look into the brain and find consciousness. After-all, neuroscientists have an annoying tendency to point to fields of electricity in the brain and think they have discovered consciousness rather than just the physical arena where it takes place (the idea that consciousness is not exactly physical has been vastly discussed). This is perhaps a recurring issue with the sciences – mistaking specialist knowledge for general explanations of ultimate causes. It’s like asking how a car works and someone pointing to the engine and saying ‘see all those things spinning around…?’ Actually, this caricatures neuroscientists, but they can tend to, as Parks point out, use analogies that they mistakenly think are explanations but are red herrings. The classic one is that the mind is a computer. But if so – who is the operator? And where is the data stored? There are no ‘files’ in the brain. (But, indeed, like a computer, complex phenomena must somehow be stored in huge organisations of simple units.)

But positing that consciousness only works as spread across brain and world seems like a radical solution. Like torching your car when you can’t find the car keys. How can your mind be anywhere but in your head? Certainly the mind works on interacting with the world, but that’s not the same. He is right to suggest that the brain is not the mind, as a university’s buildings are not the university. But the university is not the interaction of the buildings with other non-university buildings. It is a system on another level, utilizing the buildings, or facilitated by them. (Maybe this is another bad analogy.) Anyway, it shows how mind-bending thinking about the mind is. Parks suggests, perhaps in contradiction to his suggestion that neuroscientists explain away too quickly, that they are often happy for the mind to be a mystery – it makes their work seem grander, he says. But maybe they are just cautious about the paucity of theories – in a qualitative rather than quantitative sense. I have sympathy for those philosophers of mind who think that explaining consciousness – understanding understanding – might be beyond us, just as getting our heads, affected by temporality and causality and all that, around what is ‘beyond’ or ‘before’ this universe might be beyond us.

Unfortunately, part of Parks’ subjective and personal approach is his positive self-evaluation. He tells us all about how his girlfriend is so much younger than he is, and how people think she is his daughter, and how he thinks of himself as young, and is surprised when he finds out that people he thinks look old are the same age as he is. And he lets us know that the scientists he meets are impressed that he has such a good grasp of the technical material. This is not here, I assume, to make us think about the subjective and how his view of himself might not match other people’s views of himself. (Is he only assuming that people think she is his daughter? Does he think other men his age are jealous? Impressed? Might this be a projection of his ego?) But it does bring to mind Wittgenstein’s (and others’) suggestion that we are all talking past each other, making connections, but always slightly faulty ones, due to each of us having our own subjective view of the world and each other, through the slippery nature of language. This has connotations for how much the mind is connected to the world, and how much the mind is able to apprehend what is out there, how much the mind rationally reconstructs what comes via the senses and how much it operates as a parallel realm.


Guest review: Gus Mattiske (age 10) on Paul Jennings

A Different Boy, Paul Jennings, Allen and Unwin

A Different Boy by Paul Jennings is a really interesting book about a boy who is different. If you read the book you might think that the word different means a differential to other people as in ‘the boy was different’. You also might think that the word is referring to different to what was originally thought – the boy wasn’t what they thought – he was a different boy. It is good because Paul Jennings has written it in a very serious style where there are very serious comments made by the main character. I like it this way because Paul Jennings is really good, the way he can write stuff like that, but unfortunately most of his books are funny and silly, inappropriate books. It isn’t that good because the comments can be a bit unnecessary at that time in the book and Paul Jennings could have put them earlier or later.

Paul Jennings has written another book in that series called A Different Dog (2017). A Different Dog is also a very serious book.

The illustrations in the book are very good and they give the reader a better idea of the character even though Paul Jennings describes them well. The illustrations are very creative and imaginative and they suit the style that Paul Jennings writes in.

Migration and cross-pollination

Europe: A Natural History, Tim Flannery, Text.

Our home-grown historian and writer on the environment Tim Flannery is known for his writings in the Australian (and Pacific) setting, including contributions to understanding the relationship of megafauna, Indigenous people and firestick farming, but he can equally apply his curiosity to other lands, as is evident by his well-regarded natural history of North America, The Eternal Frontier, as well as more recent, globally encompassing Here on Earth. Now he turns his attention to Europe, retaining an Australian sense of humour and an Australian eye for the little battlers – tenacious toads and newts – and also for the quirky – giant pterosaurs and pygmy hippos.

We think of Europe as conquered and ordered by humans, but wilderness persists. There are more wolves in Europe than in North America. The continent is rich in natural history, evident by its strong nature writing tradition. More than one enthusiast has exhausted a family fortune obsessively documenting its wonders. Flannery shares this enthusiasm. (One assumes he is more financially prudent though.)

The evident geological richness, from volcanoes to exquisite fossils to the recent (in geological terms) uplifting of the Alps was a catalyst for the revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in what we now term the Earth Sciences. Twisted rock strata, shells on mountain tops and layers of salt beneath the Mediterranean initially confused Europeans but pointed to the dynamic nature of what was beneath their feet. This dynamism is, somewhat paradoxically, responsible for the current, deceptively stable and hospitable Europe.

The landmass we now call Europe started as an archipelago, and Flannery argues that islands have always been important in Europe’s story. Periods of isolation created unique animal species. More recently, island hopping in the Mediterranean prepared Europeans for long, exploratory sea voyages. As the land masses rose and connected with Asia and Africa, zoological and botanical exchange flourished. As today, Europe was a site of migration and cross-pollination. The fluctuations of geology and climate allowed for waves of conquering species but also subsequent extinctions.

Since the decline of the dinosaurs, as Europe cooled, species not normally thought of as European – orangutans and palms, for example – took refuge in Asia, and Flannery suggests that if we want to see what Europe was like 20 million years ago, we should visit Malaysia. European animals spread even to Australia and were only killed off with the arrival of the first humans from South East Asia.

Flannery is not merely a historian of the distant past, of course. He has an eye on the effect of humans on the environment, and what we can possibly do to retain ecological balance. The retreat of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age created fertile soils and ideal conditions for the flourishing of humans. While for most of the time since, humans have lived symbiotically with the rest of Nature, as in the very English phenomenon of hedgerows, industrial agriculture is threatening the diversity that makes Europe so biologically rich. Europeans are talking of ‘rewilding’ but as in other parts of the world, this is controversial. Flannery himself has an enthusiasm for the reintroduction of wild elephants!


Underlying everything

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton.

The Edge of Memory: Ancient stories, oral tradition and the post-glacial world, Patrick Nunn, Bloomsbury.

The Earth’s layers of rock tell a story. They tell of ‘deep time’, as John McPhee coined it – of spans of time as mindboggling, and as humbling, as the distances of deep space. These layers of rock – the Earth’s pages – also take some deciphering, as Marica Bjornerud relates in Timefulness. They tell of a history continually revised and overwritten, and written in a language it took some time to interpret.

Timefulness is a lesson in the Earth’s geological history, and what it took to understand it. It is also an argument for geological literacy, for the value of understanding our past, our place in it, and its implications for the future. We tend, Bjornerud says, to be ignorant about much of Earth’s history, and I suppose this has partly to do with the tendency to think geology is a specialised endeavour. Even if geographical education is not what it used to be, most primary school children can name all the continents, but while dinosaurs continue to fascinate, most children couldn’t name the geological era the dinosaurs lived in (the Mesozoic). Go into a large bookshop and you’ll find in the popular science section lots of books on the cosmos, lots on evolutionary theory, and lots of books on climate change, AI and other topics exciting the popular imagination, but few on geology. Yet geology, as Bjornerud says, underlies (pardon the pun) pretty much everything.

But our attention tends to be drawn to the present. We live in a time of narrowed vision, despite all the interest in history, and the information that swamps us. Bjornerud suggests that economic rationalism is part of the problem – we seek the cheap, quick fix and the short-term gain. Also, we are anthropocentric. We think the world revolves around human beings, partly because we dominate so much of it. A literal reading of Genesis has at times fed into this, making us think the world is made for us. But this neglects the message of Job, where God effectively says, ‘What would you know about it? Were you there at the beginning?’

In a similar way, geological history can give us a perspective on humanity that puts us in our place, taking into account the timeframes for mountain building, erosion and the water cycle. (In the Limestone Coast region of South Australia, to take just one example, it takes 500 years for the water to filter through the few kilometres of limestone from Mt Gambier to the sea.) Bjornerud also argues for the practicality of understanding unstable geological areas and what we are doing to the planet. Although we now move more rock and soil than all the world’s rivers combined, we are not masters of Nature, and our interference with Nature is causing climate change, pollution and extinctions.

Our attempts to fix the problem are often based on a misplaced faith in technology. Bjornerud warns that thinking of the world as something we can simply manipulate, as in a laboratory, will bring us undone. The planet is not so easily engineered. Geological and planet-wide processes are complex and not entirely predictable.

In the nineteenth century there was conflict between uniformitarians, who, like Charles Lyell, thought landscapes were created largely by slow, uniform processes, and catastrophists, who argued for periods of stasis followed by cataclysms, from volcanoes or the biblical Flood. They were both somewhat correct. The Earth is formed by both long processes and sudden changes. The global climate has repeatedly gone through times of slow cooling and rapid heating. The lesson is that it can get off kilter quickly, but takes a long time to recover. And we cannot assume continuity. Rather, a focus on geology will remind us that this planet we call home is changeable.

The long human memory of such changes is the topic of The Edge of Memory, in which Patrick Nunn argues that in a literate culture we underestimate the power of oral cultures, but they can pass on memories for extraordinary lengths of time, educating people about the availability of resources, such as water sources, as well as telling about past catastrophes that are only recently being corroborated by Western science.

In particular Nunn is interested in how within the myths of Aboriginal Australia we can discern the traces of historic volcanic eruptions and sea rises. As with the Homeric legends of Troy, the myths have been embellished in order for them to persist over millennia but have some basis in historic reality. They are not just stories, but also historical evidence. And in Australia’s case, cultural isolation has meant a certain purity of retention, untainted by cultural mixing and (until recently) conquest.

The memory of relatively recent eruptions (some only 5000 years ago) persists in stories of giants making ovens in the ground and rivers of fire, while the bunyip tales may refer to long-extinct megafauna. In other Indigenous stories relating to sea level rises, consistent across the country, we can trace the trauma of hunting grounds drowned, and peninsulas and people cut off from the mainland. 10,000 years ago Australian shorelines were kilometres from their present position. The Great Barrier Reef was a series of sea cliffs, but the shores advanced inland in a span of only decades at up to 5km per year. Obviously such creeping but catastrophic change perplexed Indigenous people but was cemented in their lore.

The biblical Flood story, which tells of a similar catastrophe, was originally taken to be the account of a real event. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of modern biblical criticism and anthropology, it was decided the story was a myth, especially as there was evidence of similar tales from other Near East cultures, from which the Israelites supposedly borrowed, and it merely told a theological story. More recently, it has been suggested that the story does have a basis in actual events that were possibly traumatically widespread but not world-wide in the sense we understand it, and that various cultures remembered it in different ways. Beyond the specifics of the story is a warning that we are not in control.

A regulated zone

Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, David Sornig, Scribe.

Dudley Flats was a Depression-era shanty town in West Melbourne, on the site of today’s vast container terminal. Originally a bountiful wetland, as the city grew it became a marginal area of reviled swamp and a tip, a place for the city to turn its back on, but a ‘vortex’ that sucked in the jobless and homeless. It would perhaps be forgotten without the efforts of historian David Sornig.

Like London’s Iain Sinclair, and with similar literary flair, Sornig has an interest in the liminal spaces not listed in tourism brochures, and in Dudley Flats he finds an unsettling, slippery space that he likens to the ‘Zone’ in the centre of Andrei Tarkovsky’s famous 1979 film Stalker. Even today, Sornig notes, the area under the Bolte Bridge, which cyclists speed through on their way to work, is a strangely empty space, frequented only by the marginalised.

The container port is listed in the Melways as a ‘Regulated Zone’. While trying to get a sense of where exactly things occurred, Sornig and friends attempt a walk through the port area, a big no no for a maritime border and terrorism obsessed government. As it has been for decades, the area is out of sight of the general public, but under the careful watch of authorities.

Sornig tells the story of the area’s mid-century residents through three characters, notorious in their own ways, who were victims of xenophobia, racism and the cruel Kafka-esque tendencies of politicians and planners, and whose lives Sornig pieces together from scraps of newspapers and government statistics. He worries about the adequacy of his reporting, and finds the need to imagine scenes and motivations – in evocative prose, mind you. He admits a difficulty in holding his images together, because, in contrast to the solid monuments of the rich and powerful that dot the city, remembrance of the Dudley Flats residents sinks into the mud, or is paved over by industry. So it goes in history, but a strength of recent psychogeographical history is to find interest and worth in the topics traditionally not prioritised in the writing of history.

In the portrayals of Dudley Flats he does uncover, Sornig finds contradictions and ambivalence. The area was often ignored, but not always. The police kept watch, newspapers occasionally flared up with sensational news of deaths and there were intermittent efforts to clean it up by those both genuinely compassionate and those with an eye on the political.  But there were mixed reports of squalor and dignity. The area was described as grossly unsanitary, but also as neat and tidy. The residents were described as industrious and free, and at other times as freeloaders and criminals. They were teetotallers and drunks, violent and polite. They should be left alone and moved on.

These conflicted attitudes remain in our own times. Sornig mentions the homeless at Flinders Street Station who, otherwise ignored, became too prominent for Melbourne’s civic leaders. But Sornig helps us see the marginalised as people, not just problems.

Performance art

Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art, Ian McLean, Reaktion Books

Contemporary Indigenous art is one of the great modern art movements, and central and northern Australian Indigenous art in particular has mesmerised art buyers and gallery goers with its colour, rhythm, freshness and closeness to country. But it is not without ambiguities. It is not entirely new, mining a rich vein of traditional design that was sustained over thousands of years in rock art, body painting and sacred objects. It is also often an art form adapted to Western art tastes and influenced by Western ideas of art.

Rattling Spears is a relatively brisk history of Indigenous Australian art, with well-chosen illustrations enlivening the text (though unfortunately the text in the new paperback edition has not been updated by the publishers to match the changes in artwork adorning the paperback’s cover and back cover). Prioritising art since 1788, Ian McLean emphasises Indigenous art as a cross-cultural endeavour, from the moments Aborigines noticed white sails on the horizon, and especially after colonisation. Since 1788 and the subsequent destruction of traditional tribal ways, Indigenous art has been ‘contact’ art.

But cross-cultural movements work both ways. Westerners have had to learn to look in a different way, to appreciate the aerial perspective or psychogeographical abstraction of much Indigenous art on canvas, and to understand this way of describing country. Additionally, Indigenous art uses patterning derived from traditional ceremony, making much of the art ‘performance art’, in a similar way to how musical notes on a page are designed to be performed. Only recently, with Western art theory’s focus on performance and the value of abstract art and new ways of looking at landscape, has a deeper appreciation of Indigenous art been possible.

For example, Rover Thomas’s work may suggest profound stillness, where much Western Desert art suggests richness, yet, says McLean, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking of Thomas as some kind of desert Rothko. The rhythms and subject matter of his paintings often refer directly to corrobboree. Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings were often a form of performance, done in one sitting no matter how large the painting, and McLean likens her to a musician able to vary the performance to suit the mood of the piece.  The canvases of Sally Gabori, a particularly interesting example of untutored artist, show her delight in the act of making art, even while they still convey her attachment to country.

Until recently, interest in Indigenous art had been largely anthropological. Albert Namatjira changed that by painting in a Western style, and his global fame helped in the push for Indigenous rights. Namatijira’s style was a blending of the traditional and Western, and was his way of responding to country, but a more radical approach occurred in the 1970s. At Papunya we first see art that was abstract and modern-looking, yet also closer to cultural traditions. While Westerners began to appreciate the aesthetics, for Indigenous artists this was a way of keeping culture alive.

William Barak is a case in point. He painted in a traditionally European way – on paper – but he also recorded aspects of his culture in order to maintain it. His painting was one way of recording the ceremonies that could no longer be performed. Barak’s life exemplifies all the wider connotations of colonisation, too. He took on Christianity while trying to maintain his own traditions, farmed in a European way, successfully running the Coranderrk enterprise with others, but was then removed from the land in a way that would not have applied to white people. Indigenous people were liminal citizens, expected to Westernise, but treated as less than Westerners.

Geoffrey Bardon, the white man who started the Papunya movement, was also a man of Christian faith, and he was overwhelmed by the spirituality in the art. What emerges from the book is how often Christians protected Indigenous people and culture, against colonial attitudes of paternalism, neglect or outright hostility. Historical accounts often lump missions with colonisation but the history is more complex. Colonial governments largely wanted Indigenous people out of sight and out of mind, particularly as, with some prominent anthropologists, they thought Indigenous people were doomed to die out. Missionaries, on the other hand, though often affected by some degree of paternalism, recognised that pastoralism had destroyed the viability of traditional life, and saw no option but to help with assimilation, and one way to do that was through making art.

So out of central Australia poured traditional-looking artefacts for sale. These were not the same as ritual objects, though they too were plundered and then sold. Baldwin Spencer frowned on hybrid, Westernised art, because with his anthropologist hat on he wanted to document what he thought of as authentic art, before it disappeared, and Indigenous adaptability thwarted that. There was also resistance from some, for the same reasons, to Indigenous people embracing Christianity. Although Christianity was undoubtedly imposed on many, some Indigenous people saw it as more than Western, and in their adaptability embraced it as a ‘fulfilment’ of traditional ways.

By the 1980s, desert art had become more than a movement and individual artists, such as Michael Nelson Jagamara, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas, became stars. Focus widened beyond Papunya and just men. In the 1990s Western Desert art flooded the market, dealers searched wider, for more abstract works, and particularly women began introducing psychedelic colour into their work, beyond the traditional earthy tones.

The phenomenal success of desert art in Australia and abroad may seem to have overcome for good the dereliction of Indigenous culture. But McLean spends some time on recent urban Indigenous art, much of it unsettling for white audiences who appreciate the entrancing aesthetics of art from central and northern Australia which is nevertheless at a safe remove. In the Indigenous New Wave of the 1970s younger urbanised Aborigines asked more provocative questions, stemming from their radical politics. Urban Indigenous art takes various tacks. Some Indigenous artists try to fuse traditional art motifs with a more urban sensibility. Some rebuke their regional brethren for making art simply for a white audience. Some fiercely prick the conscience of mainstream Australia with their refusal to move beyond pointing to the residues of colonialism that still pollute Indigenous society. Others simply refuse the ‘Indigenous artist’ tag as yet another form of racism and paternalism.

In 1896 the drawings of Tommy McRae appeared in a book. The author commented that ‘probably no other member of his dying race ever illustrated a book’. That comment has certainly been made redundant by the success of Indigenous art and the revival of Indigenous culture it has helped to bring about. The underlying perspective that brought about the comment has not entirely died out, but the cross-cultural exchange that art provides is one positive amongst the devastations of colonisation.


Crudo, Olivia Laing, Picador

How do we react to Trump and the almost apocalyptic madness of contemporary world events? One could be forgiven for falling into bewilderment, withdrawal or expletive-ridden anger. ‘Crudo’ means ‘raw’ in Italian, and Olivia Laing’s novel attempts an unsanitised, unfiltered reaction to the times, grasping for meaning in a racing, cacophonous world, with punctuation failing to keep up. (As has been well publicised, Laing insisted on no editing, in order to keep the sense of rawness.)

The style somewhat emulates that of the novel’s main character, the radical postmodern author Kathy Acker, who died in 1997. Acker wrote fiction but ‘populated it with the already extant’, so there is something appropriately tangled about her being the main character, still alive in 2017 and living out, more or less, Laing’s own experience of Trump, Brexit and getting married. And it makes sense for a writer such as Laing, whose previous books have been non-fiction, but lyrically so, to ease into fiction by blurring the line between the two.

In true postmodernist fashion, Kathy/Olivia is constantly shifting between the two personas, so that the novel exemplifies the modern feeling that reality is somewhat unreal and we are simultaneously overstimulated and disconnected. Kathy/Olivia is pulled in multiple directions. Should she stay informed and get active, or ignore events? Go protest or go shopping?

The novel is short the way a bomb blast is short. The prose is rich, but, like picking blackberries, one has to negotiate much prickliness. The book is peppered with serious swearing like shotgun pellet spray. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But its more tender side is the hope that the love between a married couple can at least moderate the madness.

Trump may seem an aberration, but in history it is not unusual for rulers to be megalomaniacal madmen enriching themselves and their friends. The frequency of, for example, Christians through the ages thinking they were living in the end times is testament to this. But while bewilderment, despair and rage are entirely normal, understandable reactions, as is a retreat into coupledom, we can also concentrate our attention on the community around us, being alert to the possibilities of small acts of kindness, even if they won’t necessarily all add up to Trump’s removal.