Medicine, the breakdown of its authority, and its consequences

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to be able to attend a Masterclass by Professor Nikolas Rose titled ‘Social Sciences and the Self in the Age of the Brain’. Professor Rose has a long history in sociology, with a particular interest in the intersection between conceptions of the self and subjectivity with biomedicine. This is all underpinned by analyses of authority and power, and how our power systems interact and inform our concepts of the self.

The Masterclass included a morning of discussion with Professor Rose tackling these issues, following by some fascinating presentations from participants.  Presentations included discussions on abortion law in Australia, the connection between perceptions of the self and music, the rise of ‘brain game’ devices and how these provide a sense of ‘brain training’, and a really fascinating talk on how women with autism interact with the medical system.

There is so much I could talk about this Masterclass, but I wanted to touch on some questions of medical authority that sparked in my mind.

At one point in the Masterclass we ended up debating and discussing the concept of leadership. We talked about how leadership has been given a psychological basis, with the concept being that leadership is an ‘inherent trait’, a trait that few are provided, and which is denied to others.

This discussion connected me back to an article I read a long time ago, titled “Leadership: An Alienating Social Myth” by Gary Gemmill and Judith Oakley. In this article Gemmill and Oakley argue that the very concept of leadership – the idea that our organisations, institutions, and broader society, require great leaders in order to survive — is a ‘myth’. This myth is one designed specifically in order to create and reinforce particular social structures and systems of power. As they argue:

“The social myth around leaders serves to program life out of people (non-leaders) who, with the social lobotimization, appear as cheerful robots (Mill, 1956). It is our contention that the myth making around the concept of leadership is, as Bennis arrests, and unconscious conspiracy, or social hoax, aimed at maintaining the status quo (Bennis, 1989).”

“Leadership theories espousing “traits” or “great person” explanations reinforce and reflect the widespread tendency of people to deskill themselves and idealise leaders by implying that only a select few are good enough to exercise initiative.”

What was interesting to me was connecting these concepts of leadership with medical authority. Throughout the masterclass we discussed the authority medical practitioners have in our society, with Professor Rose and one point commenting that for many ‘the drug a doctor provides is doctor’. Doctors and other medical practitioners have taken on particular ‘leadership’ roles in our society, given not just significant control over individual people’s health, but also increasingly over public policy and debate.

In many cases this is extremely important. We all value having the expertise of a doctor, who has studied at University for a very long time, when we get sick.  We cannot all be experts in this area, and giving that expertise to those who can focus in on it makes total sense.

However, as discussed in the masterclass, this expertise also takes on particular power roles, ones that have and continue to be used, just like leadership, to reinforce particular social roles. Professor Rose focuses this inquiry specifically on the ‘psy’ medical professions – psychology, psychiatry etc etc.  These practices of the brain have been integral to shaping our concept of subjectivity and the self, and then provide avenues for which to exclude or punish those who do not meet collectively agreed upon acceptable senses of self.

Professor Rose gave as an example one of his first ever jobs, a teacher in a school in the United Kingdom for ‘maladjusted students’. Professor Rose interrogated the very concept of ‘maladjustment’, questioning the biomedical explanations provided for this ‘condition’. The concept of ‘maladjustment’ Professor Rose said was based in biomedical understandings (i.e. that these kids were inherently maladjusted), giving medical authority to the exclusion of these students in to what was likely a poorly funded and supported school. In doing so it ignored the social causes behind these kid’s behaviour, in turn ignoring the possibility that their behaviour may actually be 100% reasonable given their circumstances.

This sort of medical authority is common in our society. One only needs to look at the way homosexuals and other ‘sexual deviants’ have been treated by mainstream capitalist society – whether it is through the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, or the castration of sexual deviants – as active uses of medical authority to enforce particular social norms. The oppression of sexual minorities has, at least for the past 100 years, been inherently based in medical language and acts – an act of using the trust, authority and expertise of medical practitioners as a way to justify minority oppression.

However, as we are able to challenge dominant ideas of leadership, we also have the capacity to challenge these conceptions of medical authority as well. The best example I can find of this is the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In this instance the issue was not medical practitioners using their trade to actively oppress minority groups (although that certainly did occur), but rather those in power often refusing to act either fast enough or with enough intent to halt the crisis (note that this is not an attack on individual medical practitioners, but rather on those who held significant power and did little to act on a major epidemic). Put simply, unlike many other epidemics, many of the powerful medical authorities, particularly in the United States, dragged their heals on HIV/AIDS, holding up life-saving treatments at times when they were desperately needed. This scenario is a perfect example of the use of an illness to attack a minority group, and then the withholding of medical intervention as a way to deny a solution to the problem. It is a clear use of medical authority to attack a minority group.

What we saw in response was the very use of this authority as a counterpoint. Receiving no joy from many in positions of power, HIV/AIDS activists and sufferers, sought out that authority themselves. People learned about the disease and drugs to deal with it, set up ‘buyer’s clubs’, and presented medical arguments to those in power in order to create change. They usurped the authority of the medical profession and took it for themselves when they needed it.

This in many ways was successful, finally pushing those in power to take the epidemic more seriously, to provide more funding, and to eventually get us to the point where HIV/AIDS has become manageable in Western Countries.

However it also has side effects. Professor Rose noted that one of the side effects of this approach was that it created an increasing focus on individual responsibility for health issues. The authority of doctor’s broke down to a point we are increasingly seeing where they are no longer considered the key point-person of an individual’s health, with ‘individual responsibility’ taking a much larger role. This has positives and negatives – while some authority has been usurped from medical practitioners, it also often places this authority and responsibility into the hands of those who may not have the capacity or skills to implement it.

What we are seeing though clearly is a break down in much of the medical authority in our society, coming at a time of a breakdown in other forms of authority structures, in particular the political class. The question is, what does this look like? The side effect of this break down of authority is that we are all taking more ‘control’ over our health and medical decisions. We all have to work on our own to fix our health, or we face punishment. But this does not seem to be that much of a solution either, as it once again ignores the inherent power structures that allow for authority structures to help shape our concept of the self. In fact one could argue that the provision of ‘individual responsibility’ in health matters is once again the implementation of medical authority structures – with this time medical approaches being used to enforce strict concepts of individualism. It is not a community approach to health, but rather a competitive individualist one, one where if you fail doing it by yourself you are then left behind.

This role of authority in creating concepts of individuality and concepts of the self is something I will be exploring more as I undertake my research. It is clear Professor Rose is someone I will have to continue reading. This masterclass was great, and I look forward to exploring these issues further.

Feelings of Nostalgia: How the Personal Became Political

This week I attended the symposium run by the ANU Gender Institute, How the Personal Became Political: re-assessing Australia’s revolutions in gender and sexuality in the 1970s.

Unfortunately I was quite busy with some other things over the two days of the event, so was only able to attend a few of the talks. However I saw some really great talks. 

I went to the excellent key note from Elizabeth Reid, in which she reflected on the birth of the women’s liberation movement and the integration (and the problems with this) of that movement into bureaucratic structures. I then went to a great plenary of ‘questioning gendered structures’. This involved talks from Amanda Laugesen on campaigns to change sexist language, a great reflection from Julie McLeod on introducing discussions of gender and sexuality into schools (something is very relevant for right now) and a really fascinating talk from Georgine Clarsen, where she spoke about working class women, particular those involved in trades, and their involvement in the feminist movement. Finally, on the second day I went to the final plenary, where I heard Jon Piccini talk about the legacy of Dennis Altman and his role in the liberation movements of the 1970s, and then ended the day with a talk from Carolyn D’Cruz on the origins of gender, sexuality and diversity studies in Australian universities (again something that is very relevant with the cuts to those studies today).

Overall, the small amount of this conference I went to was really interesting. Over forty years since the birth of the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1970s, it was quite fascinating to hear the perspectives of those who were at the forefront of those movements, in particular in the context of where we are today.

One of the most interesting parts of this was what I can only describe is a dominating feeling of nostalgia for those times. The speakers throughout the conferences often I feel reflected on these times not just as the birth of the gay and women’s movements, but also as the pinnacle of them. There was a clear perception from so many that things had gone backwards — both in terms of broader political debate, but also of the politics of the feminist and gay movements as they exist today.

This is something I’ve noticed a bit recently. At the Homosexual Histories Conference I went to in late November I noticed the very same feeling. A lot of the talks (naturally) focused on this era, with participants gleefully looking at that time as one they’d like to revisit.

My initial reaction this nostalgic turn was one of a bit of annoyance. Part of this feels a bit like a generational difference — one in which those of older generations look down in derision at those who have come after them, with a thought that basically says ‘we did this much better than you’. It feels a bit like folks throwing stones from the outside of movements that are currently happening.

But once I got over my generational insult, I looked at this with a clearer head. That is because I think there is a lot to be said about this nostalgia, it is a feeling we should certainly respect, and absolutely learn from. This is for two reasons.

First, it is because I think a lot of the politics, strategies, and tactics of the women’s and gay liberation movements of the 1970s were significantly superior to those of the predominant identity politics that exists today. The language and politics of collective liberation is one that is much stronger, in my view, than the language of identity that exists today.

Secondly however, and more importantly, I think the nostalgia reflects very strongly on identity-based social movements today. This nostalgia represents, in many ways, an isolation and distance many feel from identity-politics. It’s not just the ‘old guard’ saying ‘we did this better than you’, but instead reflecting on the fact that identity politics puts up huge barriers to participation and collective action, even for those who have led these movements in the past. Identity politics has become one obsessed with political and identity purity, something that is not provided to early leaders of the women’s and gay liberation movements, whose politics are regularly questioned. Many of these leaders are therefore left out of identity-politics today, naturally making them feel isolate, and nostalgic for a past that was seemingly more inclusive. 

This is the real learning point, and the real shame, of this conference for me. What was presented was fascinating accounts of ground breaking movements. They provided essential lessons for feminist and queer today. But I fear these lessons are not being listened to — you just had to look at the age profile of the symposium to see that — largely because identity politics puts up so many barriers that the message will never get through. We all lose when that happens.   

The never-ending question: What is your PhD on?

Next week (yay!!) I officially start my PhD.

I’m hoping that as I get going I will be able to use this blog as an update on my work and the things I’m researching as part of this project. Naturally though, this opens up the question, what is your PhD on?

I’ve already been asked this multiple times, struggling to put into words my area of investigation. So I thought, before I get going, I’ll give it a shot — outlining at least the starting point of my research, of course acknowledging that this will change.

My PhD is born out of interest of two social phenomenon.

The first is the rise of identity politics. Benjamin Riley and I described identity politics in an article we wrote for Overland Journal like this: “Identity politics usually refers to a philosophy and practise of building political movements around identities based on race, gender, sexuality, sex, age – the list goes on. There is an implied essentialism to identity politics: you become defined by what you are, rather than what you do. Intersectionality, the idea that a person can ‘be’ many things at once (gay, trans, living with a disability, etc.), is sometimes used to rebut accusations of essentialism, but we would argue intersectionality is in fact identity politics par excellence. Far from freeing us of the shackles of identity, intersectionality simply gives us a more complex matrix to slot ourselves into. We still are; we are simply many things instead of one.” Identity politics has become a dominant form of organising in many left wing circles, and in a later discussion Ben and I also critiqued this approach, arguing that the essentialised nature of it has created an individualised form of politics that eschews solidarity, and ignores the essential class nature of capitalist society.

The second phenomenon that I’m interested in is the rise of anti-politics (check out Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphry’s excellent piece on this). Anti-politics is a form of anti-establishment politics that we’ve seen become extremely prominent in the last couple of years — whether it is the rise of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, or Pauline Hanson in Australia. This is a politics based on the rejection of the political establishment; an establishment that is increasingly, and rightfully, being seen as disconnected from the general population. 

My interest is in how these two forms of politics intersect. In particular there are two areas I’d like to investigate. 

First I want to know why particular forms of anti-politics — Trump, Brexit, Hanson etc. have much of their basis in the rejection and marginalisation of minority groups. How can a form of anti-establishment politics turn its ire on other groups who are also rejected by the establishment? Is it just because this establishment politics is, in part, based on right-wing reactionary bigotry, or, as I’ve argued before, is it about people increasingly seeing identity politics as a form of establishment politics, and in turn reacting against it in that form.

The second area of interest is how people who are engaged in identity politics have reacted toward the growing sense of anti-politics. In particular I think there has been quite a level of skepticism or hostility toward anti-politics, with people in minorities increasingly placing their faith in state structures over the general population. This was particularly clear in the marriage equality plebiscite debate that occurred in Australia recently, with one of the key arguments against the debate being, in essence, that we cannot trust the general population with such an important policy issue. Many raised the spectre of violence on the streets and increased suicides all because of a public discussion and debate on this issue. I want to know where this hostility to the public arises from, and in particular ask whether this hostility has actually reinforced the right-wing anti-politics approach, rather than repelled it.

So there you have it, my PhD interest summed up in short blog post. I hope to keep you updated as I go along and I look forward to looking back at this piece in four years time when I’ve finished to see where I’ve ended up.

Would love, as always, to hear your thoughts.

Book review: The Gentrification of the Mind

For queer communities the 1980s and early 90s were defined almost solely by the HIV/AIDS crisis. The disease rocked gay communities around the world, literally taking hundreds of thousands of lives in its wake.

While the immediate ramifications of the HIV/AIDS crisis are clear, there is also a lot more to it than just the loss of life that occurred. For a burgeoning community that was just finding its feet and its voice, the HIV/AIDS crisis didn’t just destroy human life, it also did a lot to destroy the growing political and social movements of the time.

This is a topic that Sarah Schulman explores in her excellent book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, which I read over the summer break. Part political treatise, part memoir, Schulman’s book presents a compelling argument that the HIV/AIDS crisis created a process of gentrification within queer communities that continues to have an impact to this day.

Schulman’s thesis starts with a description of physical gentrification. Using important historical analysis that documents the return of people returning to city centres in the 1980s following a range of economic shifts, she argues that the HIV/AIDS crisis opened up swathes of prime real estate (due to the deaths of so many people), allowing for the gentrification of city centres such as those in New York and San Francisco to occur. This was particularly pronounced as it was often the poorer and more sexually adventurous gay men who died during the epidemic, creating space from what was often poorer, gayer, neighbourhoods to be redeveloped.

But Schulman argues that this gentrification process went well beyond physical changes — it was also a process of the gentrification of the mind.

Schulman discusses this thesis in a number of ways, focusing on what she calls the ‘gentrification of creation’ and the ‘gentrification of our literature’, but it is on the gentrification of politics that I’d like to focus briefly. What Schulman argues is that the 1980s saw a significant loss of vision and creativity within queer movements. A radicalised edge was loss with a desire to be banal. Schulman argues that this very process was one caused, at least in large part, by the HIV/AIDS. She argues, for example:

I think it is obvious, though unexplored, that this terrible moment of lost vision is a consequence not only of America’s lost vision but also of the unexplored impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay and lesbian self. Contextualise this with the homogenization of cities where gays and lesbians’ political imagination once thrived. And most importantly, with the relationship between these two events: the unexplored trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the loss of the radical culture of mixed urbanity. Set it all against the backdrop of the Reagan/ Bush years, and we discover how we got here. To a place where homosexuality loses its own transformative potential and strives instead to be banal.

Schulman argues that this gentrification was the result of the very thing that gays were fighting for at the time: increased recognition. HIV/AIDS made it impossible for the general population to ignore gays and lesbians any longer — we were on TV shows and in newspapers every single day. To deal with this the mainstream sought out “representative homosexuals with whom they were comfortable, and integrate them into some realm of public conversation.” Because, as Schulman argues: “if they didn’t, the gay voice in America would be people with AIDS disrupting mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.”

This, Schulman argues is a clear process of gentrification:

This is a classic gentrification event. Authentic gay community leaders, who have been out and negotiating/fighting/uniting/dividing with others for years, the people who have built the formations and institutions of survival, become overlook by the powers that be. They are too unruly, too angry, too radical in their critique of heterosexism, too faggy, too sexual. The dominant culture would have to change in order to accommodate them. And most importantly they are telling the truth about heterosexual cruelty. The dominant culture needed gay people who would pathologize their own.

This gentrification however did not just occur due to external forces, but was internally driven as well. While many queers fought back against this process, for many others HIV/AIDS became a way (not necessarily on purpose) to mainstream queer communities and queer fights.

Part of this was due to a physical reality. Those queers who were more sexually adventurous, and therefore more likely to be sexually radical, were also those who were more likely to die, leaving more conservative or mainstream counterparts to take their positions within the movement.

But HIV/AIDS also had a mainstreaming effect for those who survived. This likely occurred at two levels. First it left many queers stuck putting all of their energy fighting for their lives, making it far more difficult to be radical and imaginative when it comes to queer liberation. We were forced to appeal to Government forces for medical help, making it far more difficult to be able demand the overthrow of these very institutions. More importantly the HIV/AIDS created increased space for people to be able to attack the very sexual freedom that was the backbone of much of the queer liberation movement. It became easy to blame sexual liberation, and in turn sexually free people for the crisis (strangely ignoring the role of Government, for example), creating a backlash against these movements and sexual practices. Sexual liberation had not just failed, according to this thesis, it had created an epidemic that almost wiped out an entire community. It was therefore something queers must reject.

This, I believe, is an extremely compelling thesis and does a lot to explain how queer movements and communities have changed and developed since the HIV/AIDS crisis. Through the framing of gentrification Schulman provides a unique perspective on the HIV/AIDS crisis and its long term impacts. She does so through a moving narrative that is full not just of political insight, but of her own grief and attempts to deal with what occurred.

For anyone interested in the HIV/AIDS crisis and its long term impacts this is very well worth the read. 

On how the AIDS crisis of the 80s united the queer community

A look at how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.

Originally published in SBS Sexuality, 2 February 2017. 

It was a decade defined by a disease. 

First reported in the United States in 1981, and then in Australia in 1982, by the end of the 1980s AIDS had become a global epidemic, killing close to 90,000 people in the US alone. 

For the queer community – and gay men in particular – this period was especially difficult, with queer hotspots like San Francisco, New York, Berlin and Sydney being decimated as tens-of-thousands of people died within the space of years, making the ’80s one of the toughest periods in queer history. For a community that was just gaining its voice, AIDS pummelled through like a wrecking ball. But the period also marks one of strength and resilience that continues to this day. 

The period prior to the AIDS epidemic was crowned by a new sense of self-confidence for queer people within our political, personal, and sexual lives. In many ways AIDS slammed on the breaks. With the infection of five gay men in Los Angeles being the first reports of the disease, AIDS was initially labelled a ‘gay cancer’ or ‘gay plague’, or later in official terminology Gay-Related Immunodeficiency (GRID). In turn, AIDS was capitalised on as a way to halt the sexual revolution of the 1970s, turning what was once a liberating force into a tool to be used against us.

As Jennifer Power explains: 

“HIV/AIDS was depicted as a disease of immorality and deviance. Conservative media painted a picture of gay men as irresponsible and dangerous, guilty not only of their misdirected sexual predilections but of their potential to infect and kill ‘normal’ Australians.” 

After 15 years of social progress, AIDS was used as a way to turn back the clock. It was soon suggested that gay and lesbian events be banned, that there be compulsory HIV testing for all gay men and that people living with HIV/AIDS be quarantined.

Meanwhile, public violence towards homosexuals spiked, with queer bashings and murders becoming increasingly common. Many Governments did little to halt the trend, instead perpetuating this discrimination. The Ronald Reagan Administration, for example, largely ignored the epidemic, delaying progress on containment and drug development and at one point even joking about the deaths of gay men. 

Yet, at the same time, the AIDS crisis also represented something else: a time in which queer people stood up once again to fight for our lives. 

This fighting spirit was a global phenomenon, but was led in many ways in the epicentre of the disease, the United States. In 1987, a group of queers met together in New York to form ACT UP, a direct action organisation advocating for people living with HIV and AIDS. 

ACT UP took AIDS action to the streets, protesting at Wall Street, Cosmopolitan Magazine (following the publishing of an article with significant misinformation about the disease) and even the US Post Office. In probably its most successful action activists shut down the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an entire day, demanding greater access to experimental drugs that were being delayed by the Agency.

ACT UP didn’t just use direct action for the sake of it. It chose its targets very strategically and, like other AIDS organisations, was based on a strong ethic of putting the community first. With a limited official response to the disease, gays, lesbians and other HIV/AIDS-positive people took action into their own hands. People researched and became experts on the disease and potential treatments, using this as a tool for campaigning. Activists created community-based solutions, including prevention campaigns and ‘buyers clubs’; collectives of people who would, often illegally, pool their resources to import experimental drugs. These clubs represented a form of community-based medical intervention, with HIV/AIDS-positive people bypassing official structures that were to leave them to die.

When they were diagnosed, HIV/AIDS was seen as a death sentence: the Grim Reaper. But medical science eventually found ways to hold AIDS back. Long-term survivors, some now feeling a survivor’s guilt, recall preparing to die – and remember the many who did.

In Australia, the story was similar, although slightly different. With Labor in power, Australia had a more progressive approach to the disease, with the Government working more actively to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS and to find a treatment. However, this community-focused approach was still required, with organisations such as ACON and the Australia Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) taking a lead within this Government response to ensure community needs were met. Branches of ACT UP also sprung up around the country late in the decade, with Australian queers organising their own Buyers Clubs, and taking targeted action toward the Australia Drug Evaluation Committee, which was responsible for the distribution of drugs at the time.

The action of activists in the US finally put HIV/AIDS on the national agenda, resulting in the passing of the Ryan White Health Care, which provided funding for low-income and disadvantage people living with the disease. The 1990s saw the development of new drugs to treat HIV, with the highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) becoming a new standard that allowed people to live with HIV with an increasingly lower threat that it would lead to the development of AIDS. This combination of drugs, developed in part due to the knowledge and activism of AIDS activism, remains the most common treatment today. HAART has effectively stopped the progression of AIDS in developed countries to the point where in 2016 Australian medical professionals declared AIDS to no longer be a public health issue.

In Australia, activism from gay and lesbian organisations made our country’s response one of the most effective around the world. The ‘Australia model’ – considered extremely egalitarian in its approach – contained the spread of the HIV/AIDS so effectively compared to other countries that is was lauded by the UN as a best practice way of dealing with the epidemic.

Many also argue the benefits of AIDS activism go well beyond these medical outcomes. Jennifer Power argued the epidemic gave gays and lesbians “unprecedented opportunities” to “construct public knowledge about homosexuality”.

She argues:

“Before this, media and political debate on homosexuality in Australia had been dominated by criminologists, psychiatrists or the church. Gay men and lesbians were spoken ‘about’ but rarely spoken ‘to’.

“In response to HIV/AIDS, gay activists built a legitimate public profile for the gay community, allowing gay men and lesbians, as well as people living with HIV/AIDS, a human face and encouraging a more sympathetic attitude toward HIV/AIDS.”

In many ways the legacy of the 80s is mixed. While much of the sexual conservatism preached during the AIDS crisis has become ingrained within queer consciousness, the fighting spirit of the 80s does live on.

This is best represented by the recent development of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) – a medically proven preventative treatment for HIV – which has once again faced obstruction from global Governments. In response, many queers have acted as they did during the peak of the crisis, forming community organisations and collectives that have built knowledge about the drug, advocated for law reform, and shared information about how people can legally access the drug at affordable rates. This has all been community-run, with queers taking responsibility where Government Agencies have often fallen down.

Despite this progress, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still a major issue. While doctors have declared the ‘end of AIDS’ – at least in Australia – HIV infection rates remaining stubbornly stable. Globally, the AIDS epidemic has moved from gay centres to attention being focused on developing countries. While AIDS related deaths have fallen a massive 45% since 2005, with people in particular having greater access to treatment, global HIV infection rates remain steady. With over 36 million people currently living with HIV/AIDS, there is still a lot to do.

This article was originally published on SBS News. Click here to view the original. © All rights reserved.

Celebrating David Bowie: the closest thing to the concert I’ll never get to see

When David Bowie died last year one of the most devastating parts for me was the final realisation I would never get to see him perform live. This weekend I got the attend the closest thing possible to real deal.

I was first introduced to Bowie in 2005. Just a year earlier he had been traveling the world on what would be his last ever tour, abruptly halted when he had a heart attack on stage in Germany in June 2004.

After I was introduced to Bowie I became desperate to see him live. He was known for his creativity on stage, and his engrossing, entertaining presence. It was something I really wanted to see. For years I waited with virtually no hope. After his hear attack he had stopped making music and rarely made public performances. It looked liked he’d basically retired. When he surprisingly released The Next Day in 2013, and Blackstar in 2016, I was given new hope. Rumours swirled about a tour and I kept a close eye hoping for an announcement any time soon. From what I understand there were talks of a tour in the making. Then, with his death, the opportunity was gone forever.

This weekend however I managed to get as close as I could to a Bowie concert by going to ‘Celebrating David Bowie’ at the Sydney Opera House. The concert was part of a world tour led by musicians from Bowie’s band. Taking in London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and finally Sydney, this an epic performance that represented the best celebration of the man possible.

Holly Palmer Performing Lady Grinning Soul

In many ways the show was built off the depth of local talent available. Sarah Blasko performed an epic and haunting version of Life of Mars, Chris Cheney rocked out to Rebel Rebel, and Bernard Fanning was amazing on both Space Oddity and the closing song of the show, Under Pressure.

More than anyone however two stars stood out. Paul Dempsey’s version of The Man Who Sold The World was only upstaged by his rendition of Suffragette City, that had everyone up in the tight concert hall out of their seats dancing. The surprise packet was Angelo Moore from the band Fishbone. In performing Ashes to Ashes and Moonage Daydream Moore brought a level of quirkiness, excitement, flair and energy, that was exactly what was needed for a Bowie tribute. More than anyone Moore sounded like Bowie as well, making it feel as though for a brief moment that he was right there on stage. 

However more than the local talent it was Bowie’s band that stood out for me. The charge was led by Mike Garson — Bowie’s pianist — who both MC’d the show, and performed his groundbreaking piano solo from Aladdin Sane without fault. Garson regularly intervened to showcase his skills on the piano in a way I think Bowie would have been proud. Earl Slick, Bowie’s guitarist throughout much of his work presented himself as a cliched rock star, but one who, on tracks like Ziggy Stardust managed to bring the concert to life.

It was not just the band members, but the singers as well. Unfortunately the amazing Gail Ann Dorsey was not available due to illness, but she was replaced effortlessly by Gabby Moreno, whose version of Wild is the Wind was as close as you could get to one of Bowie’s favourite songs to sing live. A stunning song Moreno brought Wild is the Wind to life, leaving the concert hall dead silent in her powerful rendition. My favourite however was Holly Palmer. Palmer started the show in style with her performance of a song that Bowie never performed live, Lady Grinning Show. A tough song to sing Palmer pulled this classic off without fault. But in my mind she stole the show in the first song of the encore when she was joined by Gerry Leonard to perform Loving the Alien. A perfect song to celebrate the legend, Leonard and Palmer played with the arrangement to create a song that was very different to the way Bowie performed it himself. In doing so they didn’t just create a beautifully haunting rendition, but they highlighted a ‘love for the alien’ by playing with his music in the very way Bowie would have done himself. 

This was what was so special about the concert for me. This was a concert led by his band — the people who had performed and collaborated with Bowie, who knew him, and knew what sort of concert he liked to performed. I felt they brought that spirit into the show. They played with arrangements, experimented and toyed with the songs, exactly as Bowie used to do one stage. They performed and entertained, just as Bowie was known to do. Most of all they produced an epic three and a half hours, not much different to the epic concerts Bowie used to give.

The only thing that was missing was Bowie himself. And while that may seem obvious it was actually an outstanding achievement. This was not some hack-job of artists who really like David Bowie, but had no real connection to him, and so didn’t quite know what they were doing. This was the real thing — or at least as close as possible as you can get to the real thing. They created a show that could have easily been a concert that Bowie himself would have put on. And as someone who always wanted, but never got the opportunity to see David Bowie live, for that I will always be grateful.

Bride and Prejudice: Why does reality TV continue to disappoint?

Following five couples whose families stand in the way of their dream weddings, this conflict-obsessed drama deals with subject matter that’s ripe and relevant, which makes its failure all the more depressing.

Originally published in The Guardian, 30th January, 2017.

It seemed the limits had been reached for reality TV last year when Nine released The Briefcase – a TV show widely condemned as “exploitative” and “poverty porn”. When Channel Seven announced the release of Bride and Prejudice: The Forbidden Weddings, I hoped they’d attempted to do something different with the genre. Unfortunately I’ve been disappointed yet again.

Bride and Prejudice follows five couples as they organise their dream weddings. There is, however, one thing standing in their way: their families.

In episode one we are introduced to three of the five pairings: Donny and Marina, Courtney and Brad, and Grant and Chris. Marina’s mum, who is Russian, does not want her daughter to marry someone with Donny’s cultural background. Brad’s mother thinks he is marrying too young. Chris’s parents, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe his homosexuality is a sin. The show follows its stars from the moments of engagement until their big days, asking all along whether their parents will give up their prejudices to support their children’s happiness.

Read the full article here.

New Years, Gramsci, and Easing into 2017

On New Year’s Day Jacobin magazine published a short piece by Atonio Gramsci called “I Hate New Year’s Day”. In the article Gramsci argues:

“I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.”

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sixteen-miles/9190040031

It was a compelling and interesting piece, and one I connected with immediately. The idea that society turns our lives into set dates and markers, making us “lose the continuity of life and spirit” is  an interesting way to look at dates such as New Years, and the rigidity that it creates. This I thought was particularly true given much of the angst around 2016 and the happiness many people had with its departure. More than ever this year New Years provided a sort of a breaking point — a time when people could leave some of the horror of the past behind, with an aim to start afresh and relish in challenges of the new year ahead.

It’s almost the end of the first month of 2017 but I still have Gramsci’s article in my head. While I connected with the spirit of his writing, in the physical reality in many ways I don’t connect at all. Because while it has almost been a month I still feel I am easing back into a new year, preparing myself slowly for the challenges ahead. I still see New Years as a defining line, one I continue to reflect on as we enter 2017 fully. 

It’s an interesting dynamic and one I hadn’t thought of until this time. January always feels like this for me. I ease back in, enjoying the heat, and the cricket and the tennis, trying desperately to avoid work and ‘real life’. And I make plans and resolutions, hoping to fix things I don’t like, and achieve things I want to achieve. I feel this is a common experience of this month, particularly in Australia where so many people have such time off to enjoy the Summer months.

So I end up in a dilemma. While I agree with Gramsci that these sorts of dates can “turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management” at the same time I feel myself relishing in this opportunity. I feel a desire to have break in the continuity of life to reevaluate, assess and move forward.

That is what has happened once again this year. It is only now that I feel the desire to truly get back into normal life, and I do not regret that. In fact I feel liberated by the opportunity to sit back and evaluate in this way.

But then maybe that is the real point Gramsci was making. Why does this have to be considered a break from “real life”. Why must real life be the thing we hope not to have to return to? Why are our real lives so difficult that we need to designate a time every year to have a break from it? Shouldn’t our lives be one of continued “life and spirit” so that we can have the time for holidays, relaxation, and enjoyment, at all times, not just once (or maybe twice) a year. Why must going back to ‘real life’ be such a pain?

Gramsci I think outlines this thought perfectly in his piece, saying:

“That’s why I hate New Year’s. I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigor.

No spiritual time-serving. I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed.”

Maybe that is the reality of the joy of New Years and the months that precede and follow it. Is it maybe that these months are those that represent what we really want out of our lives? Are they the periods that represent the true spirit of life — ones that give us a genuine sense of feeling refreshed and excited for the challenges to come.

This is what I’m thinking about as I ease back into 2017. How do I make this feeling last for an entire year? How do we do that for an entire society?

What if the state provided everyone with a basic income?

Trials around the world are about to explore what happens when people are guaranteed a minimum amount of money to live on. The radical policy could reinvent our relationship to work.

basicincome

Originally published in BBC Future, 18 January 2017. 

This month Finland is embarking on a radical economic experiment. Its government is giving 2,000 people free money for two years, guaranteeing them a minimum income. The participants – selected at random from people receiving welfare – will each get 560 euros ($600) a month and they will continue to receive the money even if they get a job.

The Finnish trial is the largest of a number of experiments looking at what happens when you give every citizen a guaranteed income – a policy known as universal basic income. “We hope that basic income will give these people a sense of financial security and the opportunity to plan ahead for their lives,” says Marjukka Turunen at Kela, Finland’s social insurance agency, which is running the trial.

Read the full article here.

 

The teaches of peaches

Last weekend my partners and I drove to Sydney to see Peaches live in concert.

I am not much of a concert-goer, and so it often takes someone I really love to get me out to a gig. This year Peaches was that person. When we saw she was touring we jumped on tickets , and I did not regret it one moment during the show. In doing so I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is about her that I love so much.

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Peaches’ concert was raw, and totally energetic. She did not rest for a single moment, pumping a mixture of her hits and some new music with energy that just continued unabated. She did so in really creative ways, with a cool mixture of props, costumes and back up dancers that created what was a really coherent show that in itself had somewhat of a narrative.

At one point for example the stage crew blew up a giant condom, which Peaches walked into to sing Dick in the Air. At another time she literally walked out onto the crowd, balancing herself on people’s hands while performing.img_5665

I think most impressive though were the use of her back up dancers. She had two dancers that appeared throughout. The two first showed right at the start and then re-entered during Vaginoplasty wearing giant vaginas on their heads. As the concert continued they slowly stripped their clothes, revealing themselves the crowd. In the end the two were wearing matching pink leather harnesses, embracing each other in the last songs in deep, and highly sexual, embrace. In one of the encores, the two, both with long flowing black hair, came out with hair dryers, blowing their hair around from the front. It was, strangely, one of the most sensual things I’d seen.

This is the thing I realised I love about Peaches. Peaches has built her career off being shocking — her top hits are songs like ‘Fuck the Pain Away’, ‘Two Guys for Every Girl’ and ‘Tent in My Pants’. She revels off being risqué, and I love her for it.

However, going to her concert, part of me feared what that would look like. The show was heavily choreographed, and in doing so it had a real potential to look staged. I worried about a concert where Peaches went ‘what shocking thing can I do now?’. I worried she’d be doing it for the shock value, not because it suited the music, the crowd, or even the show itself.

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But it was nothing like that at all. The show was not a ‘shock for shock sake’. Im fact it was less shocking, and more sensual and sexual. The choreography, and sexuality, all fit within the setting of the stage and the music. Yes, she did come out in a giant condom, and it was amazing, but she also designed (or had designed) amazing costumes, and dance moves, and props that all worked together to create a highly entertaining show.

It was raw, it was real, and it was naturally. Most importantly it was natural to her. It was not contrived, or designed just to ‘shock’, but to entertain, and I suspect in many ways, just to have fun. And have fun and entertain she did.

That is what I love about her. She does sex but she does it because she loves it, not because it’s what makes her career (at least that’s my perception). And that is the Teaches of Peaches — she teaches us how to make sex real, and not just a thing to put us into shock and awe.