Tag Archives: Cultural theory

One Day in April …

Yesterday was Anzac Day: for non-Australians reading the blog, it is our national day of commemoration for those who died serving Australia in the wars of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

First, a personal disclaimer: for many years I co-ordinated the service for Anzac Day at my Synagogue, and I aimed to make it a dignified and respectful service. That particular Synagogue (Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney, formerly Temple Emanuel) had a history inextricably bound to the events of the Second World War. As far as I know, it was one of the only Synagogues to be built during the war years (at the same time that so many were being deliberately razed to the ground by the Nazis and their collaborators).  The women’s guild of Temple Emanuel raised funds for activities through active contribution to the war effort, making camouflage netting and other important materials. A great many congregants of Temple served in the armed forces, and the most senior Jewish member of the Australian armed forces, Major General Paul Cullen AC was the founding treasurer of the congregation. For all these reasons and more, I was happy to co-ordinate a dignified memorial service for those ex-servicewomen and men who had seen military service. I saw this as an intrinsic part of the Synagogue’s history, and an important moment for the elderly women and men who would come especially for this one day in April.

However, there is another side to Anzac Day that has risen in recent years. Growing up, I used to like the ambivalent position of Anzac Day in Australia, exemplified in Alan Seymour’s play “The One Day of the Year”. When I was young, Anzac Day was the day for ex-servicemen to get drunk with their mates at the pub, and a quiet day off for the rest of us. Those who attended the dawn service or other events did so because they were connected to it directly through family who had served, or those who were still serving. It functioned a lot more like the American Memorial Day. I feel nostalgic for this past way of commemorating our war dead. Back then, there was little of the ridiculous public chest-beating and almost no connection to the sort of nationalism that occurs these days. No-one went to Gallipoli on a ‘pilgrimage’. The transmogrification of Anzac Day happened during the Howard years, when national identity was firmly planted in the soil of the blood-stained Anatolian cliffs, where thousands of young Australians AND New Zealanders were pointlessly and callously slaughtered in 1915 because of the laziness and stupidity of the British commanding forces. The question we asked during those days of ambivalence was: did Australia need to experience this catastrophic generational loss in order to formulate a national identity, to enshrine the notion of ‘mateship’ in our  consciousness?

Regarding mateship, my gut says that ‘mateship’ has a far older origin than the place of Anzac Cove. I’m sure mateship existed in the chain gangs of those convicts, transported to the other side of the world for the most trivial of crimes, supporting each other through their misery. I’m sure mateship existed in the phenomenally corrupt Rum Corps and the way in which they ran New South Wales. Plus ça change, plus ça la même chose?  Wasn’t mateship a part of the Kelly gang, and all the other bushrangers, skirting the law? I’m pretty sure mateship existed in the various tragic explorations into the interior of the continent. I also think that a far darker and less pleasant mateship existed in the organised eradication and dispossession of land, culture and life from the first people who had existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years prior to us Johhny-come-latelies. In short, although I think that mateship is an intrinsic part of how we construct our identity, I don’t believe it was codified at Anzac Cove, nor do I think it holds a definitively ‘beneficial’ or positive aspect. It is the way we socialise in our culture, and I suspect has its true heritage in British forms of social village behaviour, in rural and disadvantaged parts; and also perhaps a transference of such behaviours to the emerging working-class areas of expanding city life during industrialisation. There is a certain tribal nature to ‘mateship’.

When I was growing up, some historical commentary treated the events of Anzac differently. This perspective saw the awakening of the Australian identity at Anzac through the act of British abandonment. The wholesale slaughter of these young men spoke to later generations as a conscious revelation that we, the colonies, were not inextricably linked to the Mother Country as we had perceived up to that point. This unease was reinforced in World War II, when tens of thousands of our best trained Australian and New Zealand troops were caught in the European conflict ‘on loan’ to the Mother Country, whilst our borders sat exposed to the threat of attack and possible invasion.  Again, I am simplifying complex issues and intercontinental relations, but this contributed to the severing of the imperial umbilical cord in the minds of many Australians.

While I admire and pay respect to those who served in various conflicts for Australia, I despair at the growing sense of jingoistic nationalism that surrounds this history. I wonder, was it a coincidence that the rise of Anzac Day consciousness during the Howard years also occurred during the diminution (and in some cases, revisionism) of the more shameful aspects of our colonial past, that is, the dispossession and oppression of indigenous cultures? If we are going to be full and frank about this, then the way in which we treated our indigenous soldiers left much to be desired.

A point in case: if you go into detail regarding our policies for Torres Strait Islander men, the following facts can be stated. First, they were paid at less than half the rate of the non-Indigenous soldiers; second, as heads of their villages, they were understandably concerned when their women and children were left exposed to Japanese bombing and attack, with absolutely no plan of evacuation or protection implemented by the Australian government. If you want to read in more detail about this largely forgotten history, here’s a good link to the history of the war in TSI:


Despite the very subjective nature of those who recount, History should not be a pick-and-choose game. If we are to continue towards a more mature understanding of our national identity, we must consider all different aspects of our history with a keen and critical eye, and not resort to nostalgia for some sections, and amnesia for others. Methinks we still have a very long way to go.


Filed under Nostalgia

E Pluribus Facebook

In my post on vows (see http://josephtoltz.com.au/?p=499) I mentioned that I had taken the decision to suspend my Facebook account for the month of April. A few reasons led to this resolution.  First, I suspected that I was spending far too much time looking at Facebook. Indeed, my suspicions have been confirmed, for the past three weeks have seen many more opportunities to stay ahead of work preparation, write my blog regularly, begin piano practice again and generally find a lot more time to do things rather than view things. I estimate that I was spending approximately two hours per day trawling Facebook posts, looking up what my friends were doing but not feeling that I was interacting with them in a proper, meaningful way.

After the film “The Social Network” was released in 2010, the author Zadie Smith wrote an article in the New York Review of Books (November 25, 2010) entitled “Generation Why”.

Here’s a link to her full article, should you wish to read it for yourselves:



Smith reviewed the film, and combined the review with reportage on the reaction to the film by Zuckerberg, the issues and controversies surrounding the website at that time, a more general discussion of the website, and why she gave Facebook up.

I went back to Smith’s article to look at her particular critiques, in order to see if some of her thoughts resonated with my own discomfort and the subsequent decision to suspend the account for a month. One of the really interesting writers she cites is the programmer and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier:

“Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information under-represents reality. [In Facebook, life is turned into a database and this is a degradation] based on a philosophical mistake … the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.”

Smith goes on to emphasise the point (later made by Lanier) that software is NOT a neutral format:

“Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.”

These are a series of fascinating observations. We spend so much of our time online. Rarely do we consider that the tools at our disposal are actually not neutral in character, but shape the way we communicate, the way we interact with the internet itself, and how we communicate with others. We tend to notice such features when highly commercially explicit issues are at stake: only then are our hackles raised: for example, when Microsoft or Apple control in a proprietorial way that we are forced to purchase one product over the other; or when we receive junk-mail that resembles our ‘tastes’ in a curiously accurate manner based on browsing history; or in news items, when some poor sap in a mid-Western state of the US is prosecuted to the full extent of the law for copyright infringement, and we look on with guilty sympathy, knowing that he/she is merely a “fall-guy” (for want of a better term) for the millions who are perpetrating the same ‘victimless crimes’.

In practice, one simple answer against buying into the marketed product of Facebook is to create (or update) a blog – hence my own rather more active writing during the month of April. Blogs feel more proprietorial, individual, encapsulating a personal presentation of our personalities and opinions. Sure, we are still imprisoned to some extent by our ability to manipulate the software (WordPress in my case), but ownership feels more secure, presentation/layout seems more flexible and you can vet comments and responses.  But, I hear you FB loyalists cry, Facebook can do all of this and more, and it does it all for us with such ease!  Well yes, it certainly can provide such features and more – but I do find myself feeling uneasy about the intellectual property of my the images and thoughts contained on my Facebook profile; and then there the surprising and jarring global decisions on the part of Facebook to change formats without consultation or the chance for feedback.

Smith’s argument against Facebook is that it operates under the rubric of E pluribus Unim – (one from many). This phrase, embedded in the coat of arms of the United States is turned on its head in a beautifully ironic fashion by the writer. The height of her argument is encapsulated in the following paragraph:

“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”

Ouch! Harsh but very persuasive words. Reductionism is something that we tolerate in our society, and manifests in the way we function within structures based on transcendental premises. The structures that are transcendental in our society include the law, the education system and the government (and, in times past, the arts).  They exceed our present reality as participants in society, denying immediate gratification for the promise of a greater reward. They reduce us to a general public, and we sacrifice our individuality in order that the general well being of society can function in an orderly fashion: ergo, the utilitarian social contract.

But we have not chosen any form of reductionism in our personal or general interactions on the Internet, despite the rhetoric and desire of governments (and, we suspect, private interests) to to regulate the Internet in various clumsy ways. When we choose Facebook over independent internet presentations of our selves, we unconsciously limit ourselves to what Zadie Smith bluntly terms a representation of us “entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”  There is nothing at all wrong in doing this. Facebook can help us reconnect with friends of years past; it can help us keep in touch with friends many miles away. But it is doing so through another person’s filter, and it’s worth keeping that at the forefront of our communications.

When I return to Facebook in May, I will enjoy reconnecting with friends and keeping up to date with the latest events, parties, photos and celebrations. I will enjoy being guided by friends towards fascinating and engaging articles, great musical and video gems.

But I will hesitate just a little bit when sharing my own personal thoughts and musings …


Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy, Social Graces

Tabula Rasa

The philosophical concept of “tabula rasa”, or blank slate, has been attributed to Aristotle, later developed in the 11th century by Avicenna, and brought into the modern context through John Locke’s empirical theories.

The term is specifically applied to the construction of our consciousness. According to classical notions of tabula rasa, at birth we are a blank slate, and that through our own sensory experiences, data is added and the rules for processing are formed. It is significantly supportive of the notion of free will, but also supports an idea of nurture over nature.

According to this fascinating blog, tabula rasa theories manifest also in certain modernist aesthetics, like that of Le Corbousier:


I wonder if one can apply (or if someone has applied) the notion of tabula rasa to particular societies and their aesthetic or philosophical identity, how they construct and reveal themselves. Going back to the original Latin meaning, a tabula rasa is not an untouched tablet, but rather one whose writing has been erased … scraped off. In this sense, it corresponds to our colloquialism, “a clean slate”, which has had particular resonance in the migratory patterns in Australia since colonial times.

I often question what it is that guides or forms an overarching Australian identity, and whether we can glean a trope through our aesthetic (specifically musical) portrayals. At certain times, I tend to favour the idea that the Australian aesthetic is guided by an imperative to forget … an erasure of history, of stain, of taint, a desire to keep silent about a shameful past. The “clean slate” is, in fact, a trompe l’oeil, an optical illusion of a non-existent blank state that allows us to reconstruct a ‘new’ identity, without having to come to terms with past heritage, history, baggage, issues and problems.

I’ll come back to this idea in future posts, but for now, I should clarify that the times when I do favour this idea of a forgetful aesthetic are the times when I am pessimistic about the direction of our culture. It is not my constant belief about the state of Australian culture.


Filed under Nostalgia, Philosophy