March 27, 2010

Jindabyne


Jindabyne is about the emotional unravelling of a particular event. Out on a fishing trip, four men discover the body of an Aboriginal girl in the midst of a river. They decide to continue their fishing trip and return to the town, reporting the murder four days after they found the body. Castigated by the police, the media and the victim's family, they have to understand what they have done. For some of them, this is easy: for Stewart and his wife Claire, it is incredibly difficult. Their marriage is already strained as when their son was born, Claire had post partum depression and had to leave her child and husband for several months. She doesn't get on with her mother in law either. Stewart's life is fairly boring, it is enlivened so he tells us by fucking and beer. This duo's relationship is put under pressure by the new added circumstance of what Stewart has done.

There are a multitude of questions involved: for a start how great is the sin that the men commit. In the landscape of the film it is incredibly sinister- allegations of racial or sexual motives for the men's behaviour are given. But on the other hand the men and their defenders ask whether the actual sin is the murder itself, furthermore as the girl was dead- there was nothing that could be done for her. She wouldn't care when the police were told, she was dead. The director to add to the moral ambiguity puts the murderer front and centre of the film all the time- we know who he is and his face is always in the camera shot. The film in some sense plays like a thriller- with wide shots and gratuitous 'spooky' music but I think that is to remind us about the larger crime- the murder- rather than the smaller crime- the neglect to report the murder over several days. Ultimately you feel to some extent the men get the hatred that the media and community want to unleash upon the murderer: his unavailability means that they turn on the next best thing- the men.

Whilst that is true of the community, is it really true of Claire. Laura Linney is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses and this is yet another part in which she triumphs. Because of that, Claire is a rounded and interesting character. Claire's condemnation of Stewart is upon the basis that he should have told the police and he should have. Whereas the community's condemnation is excessive, in my view Claire's is not. For her the murder is less important ultimately than her husband's sin: she has to live with her husband and trust him, she has to do neither with the murderer. In a curious way therefore, her insistance on the public morality, the public duty of warning the police, comes out of and is justified by her need for private assurance as to her husband's moral character. She is a complicated character- and far more than the other women involved she seems to scrutinise her husband's reactions but she is not blameless either.

For the third key and fascinating relationship in the film is between Claire and her son Tom. Stewart and Tom appear to have a good relationship as do the mother and son and Claire's relationship with TOm is something that Stewart uses as his weapon against her. I am not perfect, he says, but neither are you, pointing to Claire's neglect. What I found subtly more disturbing is the way that she uses the boy as a prop: she goes to the Aborigine house, taking him with her, she takes him round the streets appealing for money for the dead girl's funeral, she uses him as a shield to demonstrate her own innocence and distance herself from her husband. The latter two motivations are reasonable but to use your child to rhetorically make a point is reprehensible. It is like the beggars in London who send their children ahead of them to ask for money.

I do not think there are easy answers in Jindabyne. Of course the men should have told the police, but they were not murderers, merely stupid. Claire does not overreact, because what is a minor public offence is a major private offence. But she too can be accused of behaving oddly with her son. There is not a morally virtuous position in the film: the victim's family, the men, Claire, the other women, they all can be criticised and ultimately what is partly at stake as well is whether Australia has a single public community or two divided ones (Aborigine and White). There are no easy answers in the film, just disturbing questions.

March 25, 2010

Indian Textiles, Chinese Underwear, Machiavelli, Economics and the State

A couple of years ago the main news story in the UK was about Chinese underwear- or rather Chinese made underwear which was being exported to the EU. The assumption was that because it was cheaper it would wipe out the EU industry in underwear and therefore various companies were campaigning for protection against it. The debate may seem very young- but actually it isn't. It has plenty of resonances in history going back at least into the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries if not before. In the late seventeenth century European thinkers were in the process of abandoning a traditional obsession with military might. Machiavelli had taught them about the rise of the Roman Republic and the need for states to continue to grow and prosper or like Venice and Sparta stagnate and decline, yet the new commercial world of the late seventeenth century with the invention of a public debt and the importance of trade seemed subject to different rules about power. For Charles Davenant or Andrew Fletcher or Henry Martyn or even John Locke the new competition was about trade: only nations which exported a lot would conquer and military might was, if not obsolete, reliant upon a massive military-industrial complex that depended on government debt.

That introduced a new set of questions- one which Istvan Hont in his essay Free Trade and the Economic Limits to National Politics: Neo-Machiavellian Political Economy reconsidered considers. Hont's article is too long to be adequately described here- but a central preoccupation for those who he writes about is competition internationally and the survival of the state. Almost all these writers presumed that the main factor behind successful competition was cheap wages. Therefore they argued for national self restraint when it came to wages. Charles Davenant wanted a system where the unemployed were forced to work, thus having the effect of lowering wages. He wanted any Irish woollen industry strangled before birth in order that it might not compete with the English. Davenant was opposed by others who objected to an industrial strategy at all: some who argued that it was too uncertain to prosper, others who believed that with Henry Martyn the market might naturally compensate. The point though of Davenant and the rest though is what they are analysing for: fundemental to all the analysis is the observation of Sir William Temple, diplomat and economist, who argued that the central fact of the 17th Century was the monopoly of trade developed by the Netherlands and the invasion of that monopoly by the great territorial powers of Europe.

Trade is a means to succeed in the power politics of Europe. In that sense it is Machiavelli's dynamic- particularly for Davenant that matters- the point of Machiavelli's analysis was that the world turned through cycles of frugality and corruption. Republicanism had to be dynamic- without it being so it would be overcome. What Temple and others thought they had established was that it was not republics but frugal states- states willingly poor- who could sustain wealth. Davenant and others had to consider how to find trade in which England might be the cheapest competitor- and they worried about Indian woollen goods invading Europe. The central point of this economic debate as it is now is the threat of cheap labour from overseas wiping out industry. Then the issue was Indian wool and the concern was that cheap textiles would destroy the English industry and any latent dream of English imperium or even survival. If Trade is the mechanism behind state power, then failure to maintain competitive advantage could be doom.

There are two interesting things here: the first I have discussed already- the contrast between old Machiavellianism and current concern with workers. But there is another interesting dynamic- one might say that the concerns of Temple and Davenant about India reveals how little contemporaries can understand of their own economic situation. What they did not know is that within a century, King Coal would have taken the monarchy of King Wool and British politicians would hardly care about the ancient textiles industry. Secondly though it is the importance- which Martyn perceived of the carrying trade- the industrial revolution as Chris Bayle argues is his Birth of the Modern was partly born because of the investment of capital created because of the advantages the East had in cheap goods over the West. Perhaps a third reflection is due- Davenant, Temple and Martyn all had complex and interesting theories (Hont develops them in ways I have not here) and that suggests that economics is a far older science than we give it credit for.

The fascinating point about these economists as that the Machiavellian direction that some of them took economics revealed how a politics of virtue might be constructed out of an economics: ultimately the constraint that Davenant and the rest feared was the constraint of economics creating wealth, corruption and dependance. In this sense they could be said to be reinventing the cycle- but now that cycle was one of trade where poverty led to exports, exports to wealth, wealth to imports, imports to rising prices and corruption and the circle continued. Like a good Machiavellian, Davenant in particular believed that you had to engage in that contest- but like a good Machiavellian he knew that the contest would eventually destroy the state.

March 24, 2010

A Photo

This photo has become an icon of the British class system- used on innumerable books and newspaper covers- however the truth about the lives of the people in this photograph is more interesting than the photo itself. The Guardian has the details- but suffice it to say that the two boys from Harrow had horrendous lives and the three boys standing near them had rather comfortable lives. That doesn't mean that there was no such thing as a class system when the photo was taken- but it does show us a couple of things. Firstly it demonstrates how individuals can range from their class expectation and how unjust the world can be in other ways: one of these old Harrovians went mad, he probably had a tougher life than many of those guys giggling away. Secondly it demonstrates how appearances can be misleading- none of the three working class kids was working class, look at their feet, they are wearing tennis shoes! Furthermore they too are in pretty elaborate dress- shirts etc- the contrast between that and the suits makes us think there is more of a contrast than there is. Partly that is because the past is foreign to us- partly it is because photographs create contrast where none or less contrast may exist. Thirdly as the Guardian writer reminds us, a photograph by its nature is false: it is a snapshot in history- you cannot convey a film in a frame, neither can you capture life in a photograph. That doesn't mean that photographs tell lies- but they are economical with the truth (to misquote Alan Clarke)- only in context can they make sense.

March 21, 2010

History and Religion

Wendy Doniger recently published a book about Hinduism to which many Hindus took exception. I have been waiting for this to happen with some religion or another over recent years. The reason is that historians investigating those religions- whether it be Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other- have found details which the believers in those religions do not believe in. To take some examples: David did not rule an empire, Solomon was not widely known even down to Sheba in the ancient world, if Christ rose from the dead then so did the entire Jewish nation who had died before that point, the Hadith cannot in some cases be the sayings of Muhammed. We could go on- but the central point is that religious tradition has not neccessarily always interpreted its texts to make accurate historical claims. That of course does not neccessarily undermine the whole basis of religion- you can still like Tom Sheehan be a Christian and a historian- but it does place traditional accounts of religion into a different context.

Doniger's book appears to have roused the ire of Hindus because she represents the Hindu gods as sexual beings. They call her book pornography about the Gods. The interesting thing about this is how it represents a very modern attitude to sexuality. I do not know much about ancient India but what I know of other ancient religions suggest that sex and the divine were not as segregated as we like to think of them. Just take a look at one of the greatest examples of erotic poetry in the Western canon- the Song of Solomon- which parades its author's love of his lover's breasts. Or look to Greek or Norse mythology for a description of loose goddesses and priapic Gods. That does not mean that all ancient religion was about sex- but attitudes to sex in religion have changed over the years. It would not seem strange to me that attitudes to sex in Hinduism have likewise changed over the years and that Hindus today, who are much more nervous about sex, choose, like Christians today with the Song of Solomon, to give their texts allegorical meanings rather than reading the actual words.

Let us imagine though that Donniger has got everything wrong- many Hindus suggesting that she has are campaigning for her book to be withdrawn. I think that is a ridiculous claim. If free speech is to mean anything, it means the right to offend others with what you say. If we do not believe in that, we should abandon free speech itself entirely and have a list of things which can or cannot be said. There are good reasons for allowing free speech for things that are mistaken: for a start the common understanding of a society about something can be wrong (in history for example most people today read the Christian scriptures in the wrong order- assuming therefore that things in the later texts (the Gospels) can be read into the earlier texts (Paul)). It is always possible that we are mistaken about what we know. Let us go further, it is only through debate that mistaken ideas can actually be corrected- if Doniger is wrong, the correct way to refute her is to publish a book explaining why. Shouting that you are offended and the book should be withdrawn suggests that this knowledge needs hiding, rather than that this is an easily refuted set of statements. Argument is useful, even with someone who doesn't know what they are talking about, because it may force those who know the truth to refine their understanding of it too.

Banning books because of their arguments is not an answer that can be consistent with a democracy. The precedents for book burnings are not good.