July 2010 archive

The Internet Never Forgets

There was a standoff in the kitchen this morning – the dog inside at the cat door, one of the cats outside, each staring the other out and neither daring to move. I thought to intervene and put a stop to their agony but before I had a chance, the cat in all her majesty dismissed the dog with a brief flash of paw and stalked through the cat door to the inside, bypassing the upright dog.

Upright and uptight, our dog has no hope against the cats, not just because there are more cats, not just because two of the cats are female, but also because the cats take command in a way in which the yappy, friendly dog cannot.

I thought from cartoons I had seen as a child that dogs chased cats, but from my experience recently – since we came in possession of a dog and since talking to others about their pets – dogs are more intimidated by cats and cats can be ferocious.

Instinctively, in my mind I create a gender divide for cats and dogs – cats as female, dogs as male, which is ridiculous as are most generalisations and yet they are easy to make.

In more recent years I have become aware of the pitfalls into which we collapse when we make such basic assumptions and binaries and yet we do it every day. This is where I find the last of the keynote speakers at the autobiography and biography (IABA) conference, Lauren Berlant’s writing both challenging and exhilarating.

Berlant writes about ‘Intimate Publics’. I would tell you here what I think she means by this but I have yet to grasp the concept fully, even as she has tried to tell me about it herself in an email.

Why is it so difficult for me to understand the dense language of theory? I start to read Berlant’s essay on intimate publics and the words on the page are readable. I can understand them, one word after the other, but there is something in the way she has tied these words together that evades me.

I am a creature of my age perhaps, a victim of my limited education as a child when the nun’s taught us to absorb the facts through rote learning. Never mind that we could not understand the facts we had memorised.

I should speak for myself here. I could not understand much of what I learned as a child particularly in science and mathematics. I imagine therefore that I have a block against some theory, as if I am looking at a page of numbers or a list of mathematical equations that I cannot compute.

I once sat an aptitude test for librarianship as a seventeen year old, in the days when we were encouraged to apply for all the respectable jobs a young woman might undertake – nursing, teaching, social work – and I had trouble sorting out the order of a series of red and white, differently shaped flags. The detail evades me, though I believe I must have failed in this basic spatial test.

Berlant said at the conference that she has trouble writing and that her sentences can be too long and convoluted. Her interlocutor, Jay Prosser, disagreed and reeled off a number of beautiful sentences she has crafted.

For me the difficulty lies in the degree to which Berlant deals with abstractions. I cannot accommodate abstract thought. I need a story to hold me to the page. My brain is constantly looking for an image onto which I might latch an idea, but when it comes to the abstract ideas, whatever they are, such concepts as ‘intimate publics’ evade me.

‘Read what other people have to say about her ideas,’ my oldest daughter says, after I explain my difficulties in understanding Berlant’s writing. ‘Read the reviews. That way you’ll begin to understand her ideas and it’ll give you some idea of what she is on about before you tackle her directly.’

I am troubled by language, the way even people who speak the same language have so many different ways to say the same things. Interdisciplinarity and ideas that cross over from one framework to another seem to create new frameworks.

On another but related note, to do with knowledge and understanding, I have read recently about the horrors awaiting us given our growing realisation that the Internet never forgets.

Does this frighten you, too? Everything we post on line will be recorded forever, for posterity and anyone can hold it against us if in ten years time they choose to dredge up some wayward indiscretion on our part, or some hint of deviance from the past.

The Internet needs an inbuilt facility for forgetting some argue, rather like the human mind. If things are remembered with all the accuracy of facts, our memories cannot undergo any of the transformations our brain processes normally put our experience through – some experiences get repressed, some forgotten, some concertinaed, some distorted.

Without an inbuilt delete button we lose our capacity for change. We get stuck in rigid stereotypes and an overload of unchanging and therefore immutable information that renders us constipated and dull.

We need an internal delete button on the Internet to help with the overload, and to allow us to continue the process of change that goes on throughout our lives from the moment we are born. But someone has yet to invent a way of introducing it so we do not fall into the trap of unlimited information and no capacity to forget.

Silence is the greatest crime

Joan Didion argues that writing by its nature is ‘an aggressive, even a hostile act.’ It is, she argues ‘the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind…setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the readers most private space.’

In this way writing can be considered an enactment of the desire for revenge, as much as it can be a creative gesture, a gesture of defiance, the speaking out against oppression, that in itself might become another form of oppression.

In an essay ‘On hurting People’s Feelings’ Carolyn Wells Kraus writes about the nature of biography as an act of autobiography. She argues that ‘reducing a person’s story on a page, robs it of complexity’.

Is it really the desire for revenge that sets my blood racing or is it, as Kraus argues, guilt that I too am complicit? Non-fiction ‘sucks the life of a person onto the page’ and distorts that life to the author’s own ends, Kraus writes. Characters are slanted in the direction of the author’s obsessions.

‘The real problem,’ Kraus argues ‘is that you’re borrowing the peoples’ identities to tell your own story.’ Kraus quotes at length from her own writing and others to demonstrate the ways in which a writer’s bias influences the description of other characters. And so in telling the stories of others we inevitably tell our own stories.

‘There is no script,’ Kraus argues, ‘only improvisation. We fill in the outlines from the details. All we know of the world as writers is what we see – images, words, scenes. We supply the meaning, and we alter that meaning with every sleight of hand.’

Two days ago a jury found Robert Farquharson guilty of murder for the second time. He had been ordered a retrial on appeal. The jury found that Farquharson had murdered his three sons, ages ten, seven and two. He had driven his car and his boys into a dam, an accident, he said, the result of an out of control coughing fit. Farquharson survived. He had managed to extricate himself but his sons drowned. It happened on Father’s Day.

Farquharson is said to have killed his sons to avenge himself on his wife, to punish her for leaving him. To me if this is true, his action is an enactment of his desire for revenge, although Farquarson may well not be in touch with any such desire. It seems he cannot believe that he did it the way the courts have argued, deliberately intentionally, purposefully. It is his lack of awareness that makes the crime the more chilling.

If Farquarson knew openly about the hatred he held towards his wife after she had left him, then perhaps he need not have acted upon the impulse.

Feelings that are not recognised are far more likely to be acted upon. Rage denied is worse than rage acknowledged. When the anger is denied it seeps out when we least expect. It slips out like a hidden leak, one that drips between walls and causes untold damage. Think of it, a slow drip between the cavities of two walls, the mould, the stench, the rising damp hidden from view and slowly swamping, inching its way into the body of the house.

In 1997 a father murdered his four daughters in Tasmania. He stabbed them in the throat as they slept. Only the oldest had woken and tried to defend herself. There were scratches on her arms. The others must have been asleep when their lives were taken. The father then went off to the local township to post fifteen letters to relatives in bloodstained envelopes. He did not use stamps. He returned home, took an axe, chopped off his right hand, and then shot himself in the head.

Silence is the greatest crime and yet our lips remain sealed.

‘Sunday morning and I flick through the pages of the Best Australian Essays and find a newspaper cutting I left there months ago. I recognise it instantly. The reporter writes: ‘Doctors will have to wait until the end of the week to determine the success of surgery to reattach a toddler’s left leg, which was severed in an early morning axe attack’. In the next paragraph, the reporter tells us that, in the middle of the night, in a rented house in suburban Melbourne, the seventeen-month-old boy’s mother severed his left leg below the knee. She has a history of mental illness, the reporter adds, as if to make sense of it all.

I first heard the story on the radio, the day it happened, a few abrupt words over the static between the weather and fashions on the field. I was driving home after dropping my youngest daughter at school. By the time I read about it in the newspaper the next day some of its impact had worn off. A twenty-one year old mother, no name supplied. She had recently moved here from the country. There were details about the surgery and its similarity to surgery performed on a Perth boy who had lost both his arms and a foot while slam-dunking through a hoop on his garage wall. There the similarities end.

The reporter interviewed one of the surgeons who reattached the Perth boy’s limbs. The surgeon did not want to be named. He congratulated the team that had performed microsurgery on the toddler on the morning of the attack. The chances of success, he said, depended on the slow regrowth of nerves and the movement of muscles and tendons over a number of years. Young people heal more quickly, the surgeon added: ‘They have youth on their side.’ From my essay ‘Fierce Amputations’, Island Magazine 106, Spring 2006.

Silence is the greatest crime and yet our lips remain sealed.

Another person who tackles silence but in a different way is Lynn Behrendt. Could I please introduce you to her exceptional and haunting work. She is a stunning poet and artist.

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