BOOKS > THE CENTRE AND OTHER ESSAYS
what it says on the cover:
essays roam far and wide, but have two centres - the middle
of the Australian continent and curiosity about what the
future holds. Globalisation is forcing eyes outwards, and
sometimes, too, it creates a wish to defend the local against
powers beyond our control. For countries where the political
tradition is of chaos, despotism or corruption, the coming
world may seem like more of the same, but for countries such
as our own, with a tradition of holding governments accountable,
unsettling problems loom. Mobility, too, is shaping the world,
making the experience of being looked upon by tourists a
part of daily life. We observe, and we are observed observing.
The validity of the gaze, the experience of being subject
and object, are changing, while the problems of power are
what they always were: restless humanity, causing endless
change, can’t change itself.
read some extracts from the book click here:
The shape of an economy
No redemption; go forward, or stay as we are?
Getting what you want or wanting what you get?
Ideals for the globe (all species included)
Inclusion/exclusion; is a dynamic kinship society possible?
Borders between global and local; a price to go through?
Aboriginal as local; the role of tourism
What’s to be done about power?
read about the writing of this book click
centre has always been different. Early settlers, noting
the flow of rivers, deduced that there should
be an inland sea.
They went looking, but couldn’t find it. Captain Sturt’s
party took a large whaleboat, finally abandoned west of the
Darling, in country beyond what’s now called Broken Hill.
The keel of this boat hung for many years on the verandah of
station and for all I know may be there still.
search for an inland sea was long regarded as a foolish one,
who decided to drill for artesian water, and did it successfully,
could have congratulated
themselves on finding what Sturt did not. The sea was underground.
shape of an economy
In the days when Robert Menzies
was prime minister, Australia was remarkably prosperous,
or so it seemed when the basis for
comparison was provided by memories of the 1930s depression and
the war that followed. The days of Menzies were better than almost
anyone could remember. The Prime Minister was wont, when anything
appeared to ripple the surface, to point to something - anything
- on the horizon and predict better times ahead, when, he would
say, the approaching prosperity would trickle down to all members
of the community. Trickle down. Today, we would say flow on;
the difference is instructive. Trickling down implies a vertical
society, with fairly clear distinctions of class: a British model,
in short. Flowing on implies an endlessly moving economy, a sort
of increasing and diminishing stream, with smart people building
where the waters are widest, and the poor not consciously excluded
but forced to camp where the flow is scarcely more than seepage.
This representation accords with the thinking of the empire which
has replaced British domination of the world.
redemption; go forward, or stay as we are?
is an idea which recurs endlessly, often in unexpected
places. The operas of Richard Wagner are mostly concluded
acts of redemption. Love redeems, and Isolde is redeemed in
death. Destruction can also redeem, as we see when Valhalla
the Rhine’s magic gold is restored. The Christian church
has long preached the redemptive power of Christ, linking the
means of this redemption to the ineradicable sinfulness of
humans, so bad that only the intervention of the Almighty (sacrificing
his son) could give humanity the redemption which it obviously
- so says the church - needs. Countless others have accepted
that humanity is incapable of its necessary improvement, and
have fallen back on a redemptive power to solve the insoluble
essay deals with some of the questions raised by that problem:
is humanity ineradicably flawed; if so, is
what we should look, or hope, for;
where should we turn for the redemption needed (if it is); and is there any
alternative to the nagging sense of fallibility burdening
the human race, any better way
of looking at ourselves which will relieve us of the problem? These are not
easy questions and I fear my treatment of them will be sketchy,
but let us make the
what you want or wanting what you get?
is conventional to describe our society as affluent, which
tells me means ‘flowing freely or abundantly
(1816); plenteous, wealthy’. I want to say that the wealth
we have created is to some extent very considerable; to some
extent illusory, or a matter of definition which won’t
bear close examination; and to some extent the cause of a new
form of slavery. Whole industries exist, in our society, to
ensure that the two - what we want and what we get - never
drift far apart. Citizens - a noble word, I have always thought,
although the rights it implies, and their political expression,
had to be snatched from a class of people who called themselves,
in many parts of Europe, the nobility, and enjoyed their privileges
by repressing lesser folk - citizens are
steadily, daily and continuously being turned into consumers, a word restricting
people to the economic plane of society, which means that they
have to be inveigled, coerced, or encouraged to consume, an
odd idea to be as central in modern thinking as it is. ‘Consume’ is
a euphemism, and a crude one, for ‘spend’. Empty
the pockets. Pass money over the counter. Buy. Commit yourself
to repayments for months or years ahead. Why do people accept
debt which will govern their capacities and freedoms for perhaps
the rest of their lives?.
for the globe (all species included)
title of this essay implies goals we are unlikely to reach,
no other reason than that we are too inexperienced at
thinking about what other species might want, apart from being
unmolested by us! We may decide, after struggling for a time,
that it is enough to have opened up some matters for better
minds to pursue. So, nervously enough, let us begin with
questions. Does the human race know where it’s going?
Second: has its movement over, say, the last thousand (or two,
even twenty-five thousand, if you wish) years been progressive,
that is, from an inferior to a superior position? Third question
(three will be enough, I think): who, if anybody, has been
in charge of change? To bring that last question up to date,
anybody directing or managing the movement of human affairs,
and if not, should we as a race try to influence what we make
happen to ourselves? Or are we content to live with the results
of letting individuals or groups who are not elected, managed
or forced to give account of themselves take hold of the levers
of social life and push and pull as they think fit?
you consider those questions for a moment you will see that
and there are many more than three problems raised. Nonetheless I will try,
to begin with, to confine myself to the three areas nominated.
the human race know where it’s going?
is a dynamic kinship society possible?
hard to ignore someone when you see them every day, harder
when you know their blood relationship to those around
you, or to yourself. Once you acknowledge someone’s existence
they make you feel at least a little responsibility for them.
If they fall from grace, so do you; if they’re hungry or
sick, you must act on their behalf, or lose some of your humanity
in turning your back. I use the term kinship society to mean
a society structured on some definition of family relationships
between individuals and groups, be they clans, totems, or whatever.
In modern capitalist countries such as Australia, family bonds
are still important, but so many of our interactions are based
on economic, educational, legal, political or scientific grounds
that it is no longer easy for us to imagine what life in a kinship
society would be like. We are likely to look down on such a society,
as we do when we hear that the civil servants of a country may
take days to do the simplest tasks because they have no concept
of managing the functions of a nation state; they are merely
attending one of several workplaces to accumulate the currency
needed for survival, and they acquire their positions in these
workplaces through family influence. Thus the nation’s
daily work is likely to remain undone because nobody sees any
need for it to be done while family members are fed and content.
The nation exists, insofar as any reason needs to be found
for it, to ensure that all members of my family - I may not
with yours - are looked after.
between global and local; a price to go through?
is happening all around us, sometimes visibly, sometimes
out of sight. We sense it as a force barely understood,
under nobody’s control, and likely to be active for generations
to come. Some want to resist it, but can’t, some to exploit
it for all it’s worth, and others to manage it for one
reason or another. I belong to the third group, and I am writing
in an effort to understand what I should be doing, though I
am aware that globalisation, a mass movement sweeping humanity
is never likely to be predictable. What will the world be like
in another two hundred years? Who knows? Almost the only thing
we can be sure of is that certain polarities will continue
to exist - uniformity and diversity, freedom and restriction,
acceptable and the unacceptable (you may overlap those two
with right and wrong, and see what you make of the exercise),
many more. The first of these pairs - uniformity and diversity
- is the starting point for this essay, and it roughly equates
with the words global and local in my title: global organisations
will of necessity possess considerable uniformity, with diversity
to be found in the many forms of local custom - the Arab burnous,
the Inuits’ suits of fur, the near-nakedness of tropical
or island people, the suits and jumpers in cool to moderate
and local: there is surely no more important polarisation
for the centuries before us. One would think that
only a descent
into chaos or some subsuming of
the many locals into an overwhelming global would bring to an end the period
I am trying to look into. Where to begin? This is hard, even though I have
no doubt that when people, centuries hence, write the history
of their time they
will say that its origins were clearly visible in this time we inhabit, blindly
as local; the role of tourism
years ago people tore pages from library books to prevent
readers having access
to lists of convicts transported to this
country from Great Britain. They did this from shame, fearing
a loss of respectability if their past was uncovered. Convictism
was a stain when to be spotless was a virtue.
passed and the unmentionable became a source of pride. People
of convict ancestry, if they could find it.
I have no doubt that a similar reversal
will take place in the fortunes of our aborigines and those many people who
have what was once sneeringly called ‘a touch of the
People will go looking for an aboriginal connection and speak
of it with pride. This
will be a reversal of somewhat greater importance than the acceptance of
convicts in the family past. The very difference between
the aboriginal way of life,
their minds and values, and the European, the American, and
the emerging global way
of living, the difference which today makes it so hard for us to reconcile
the culture that invaded and the culture that resisted, that
difference, that stubborn
resistance to the globally inventive and innovative, will be a lode of quality
beyond almost all other values.
strange claim? I think not. I’d better
get one point made straight away, because everything that follows will
depend on it. The Australia that
built up since white settlement has been as much an international - or
global, as we say today - creation as it has been a local
one. That is to say, in
the dichotomy running through these essays, we are only modestly differentiated
what’s been known as global at any time in our history.
to be done about power?
hot potato. It’s not good for
anybody to hold it for long. It must be shared. Checks and
balances should oppose its misuse. Controls should exist
for its every
application. Humanity has seen the abuse of power too often
not to have learned. Popular sayings (Power corrupts ...
) are correct,
and yet, dangerous as power is, we cannot be rid of it. There
is good, or necessary, political action as well as bad, and
the good, the necessary, cannot be done without power to
All law, all attempt to manage human activity - and we cannot
do without regulation - entails the ability to enforce. Enforcement
involves power. Power is paradoxical. It involves considerable
danger of being vicious even when used in virtuous action.
It is an unavoidable, ongoing test of the morality, the
of every single action. Abuse is therefore unavoidable, but
must be minimised by all involved or affected.
speak in woolly generalities, but what else is there to do?
all there is to be known about power. Its temptations
and deceits are established in us
all. The question ‘What’s to be done about power?’ can be
rewritten as ‘What can we do to make ourselves behave well?’.
writing of this book:
many people, I read the paper while I’m having breakfast.
This means that the newspaper people set the agenda for my
thinking, even though I break away from their settings all
the time. Many of us do, though the effect they have is still
there. In the latter half of 2001 I began to ask myself what
were my concerns; it wasn’t that I was troubled by
any particular issues, rather that I felt a need to listen
for inner voices and questionings instead of having my thinking
topics provided for me. The catalyst for doing so was that
in the middle of 2001 I’d had two trips to the Northern
Territory, and the effect of Kakadu, Uluru et cetera had
been profound. Once again, a part of my country unknown to
me before had entered my thinking. It had happened to me
as a young man aged 22 when I’d been sent to Gippsland
on a teaching appointment, and here it was, happening again.
When I’d gone to Gippsland, a young man from the inland
plains, and later the city of Melbourne, had encountered
the eastern mountains; this time, a man from the coastal
fringe was encountering, at last, the centre he’d been
hearing about all his life.
was a revelation. I thought central Australia was truly wondrous:
harsh, beautiful, a place dictating a way to live that was
almost the reverse of what was best in the places where I
came from. I could feel my thoughts about my country changing
yet again. The ideas that had been in my mind for a long
time had begun to look tired. I should do some new thinking.
I would write down my thoughts, but this wasn’t as
easy as I had expected. I’ve already referred (see
my notes to go with Hail
and Farewell! An Evocation of Gippsland) to
a struggle I had when I began to write the ‘Landscape
and people’ section of that first book. Would I narrow
my focus, and concentrate, or would I let my mind wander,
picking things up and putting them down, in order to make
connections across a wide region? I did the latter. When
I started to write essays for the first time since I’d
been a student, I encountered a similar problem. Essays are
normally written in an argumentative or expository style,
but I found that I was most interested when I was least certain;
in other words, the things I was most interested in were
likely to cause me to speculate, and question, rather than
to assert. The essays would be structured, then, not by a
sequence of ideas I wished to define and then defend, but
by a sequence of queries that came to me as I did my thinking.
It seems to me that to close one’s mind on any matter
is a bit like setting up camp at the end of a day’s
travel. The tent will be all right for a night or two, but
will have to be pulled down when you move on; pulled down
in order to be erected somewhere else and possibly in a different
way. I think structures of thought are rather like this.
Hence the way I’ve written these essays in The
Centre. They don’t really aim for any finality,
they’re just a record of a mind’s movement over,
under and around the topics that seemed important at the
time. I hope this is acceptable to the reader. It’s
how most of us think, most of the time.
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