Friday, August 26, 2005

describing a dog walk

We head out just on dusk. She pulls forward as I pull her back, my arm muscles straining. She dives for the gutter. "Off the street!" Trotting along, the sound of six feet padding the uneven pavement with our regular steps. Over roots and broken asphalt, the sky dimming and the stars brightening. "Don't eat that! We're not going that way." A sidelong glance then back to the ground. Too many smells, trails to follow. "Come on, that's enough." We turn the corner but one tree is too hard to resist, offering the special scents left by today's visitors. She halts to sniff and I stop. There are no steps. The traffic sounds louder, like the onset of monsoon showers, the cars roar past leaving a calm in their wake. Then the birds go off. I don't know all their names, some Indian minors, a magpie, a flock of lorakeets. We trot on past the primary school; the smell of Eucalypt from a pile of wood chips in the corner of the school yard. Breathe in deep. Look down. "Don't eat that little dog!" A cat turd hangs out one side of her mouth. "Drop it. Come on. Please..." We turn into our street. Her trot has slowed. It's dark and the neighbour's white cat announces our arrival with a snarly meauw. The gate is open and swings wide hitting the bricks. A hard sound. Unforgiving. I rescue the gate as it jumps back. Then it's closed, clink. Into place. We're home.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"Our community first..." Oh really?

Carmel Tebbut's Campaign Leaflet

Following NSW Premier Bob Carr's resignation there are a number of NSW bi-elections including one in the electorate of Marrickville. The labor candidate for Marrickville is Carmel Tebbutt who held the portfolio of Education and Training Minister under Premier Carr.

I urge all voters in the Marrickville electorate to consider Tebbutt's record on being "Caring and Committed" before giving your vote to her. As the Minister of Education and Training Minister, Carmel Tebbutt banned an education resource as part of a sex education program that promoted tolerance to gays and lesbians after "The Daily Telegraph" published a story of one parent complaining to the school about the program. Her reaction was to ban the material and claimed "it was inappropriate." Inappropriate to teach tolerance towards people who are not heterosexual Carmel?

Her reaction has drawn criticism from many including the NSW Teachers Federation, President of the Secondary Principals Council, AIDS Council of Australia and the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Special Interest Group. More details about this story can be found in Adele Horin's piece in the Sydney Morning Herald and also on the NSW Teachers Federation web site.

The NSW Teachers Federation sent a letter over the action as did the President of the Secondary Principals Council, Chris Bonnor who said in his letter that:

"Teachers and especially PD teachers will see the response of the government as simply a disgraceful act of cowardice. Your reported response is even out of step with readers of the Daily Telegraph. When asked 'do you think this subject matter should be taught in schools?' 80 per cent responded 'yes'. Your response certainly does not align well with other government and DET initiatives for dealing with homophobia."

Tebbutt has made it very clear by her actions that her policies, ostensibly promoting a government that is "Caring & Committed", do not extend to promoting social tolerance to gays and lesbians. Far from reducing the level of homophobia in our society, her actions will reinforce it. How ironic and how disappointing, when Marrickville Council has one of the highest proportions of gays and lesbians than just about any electorate in Australia. So much for putting "our community first" Carmel...

Friday, August 19, 2005

Meeting with supervisor

Met up with my supervisor yesterday. It wasn't a brainstorm like our previous meetings but it did help me to get a few ideas on how to proceed with my PhD now that I've finished my Confirmation of Candidature. I've been feeling a bit adrift and unmotivated since completing the COC document and presenting it to the panel of academics. It's such a weird thing, doing a PhD. In some ways, you would think there would be very clear procedures to follow given how many have come before you and yet, while there are some guidelines to follow, it is still a very open and organic process that must be re-invented from scratch each time, shaped by the particular research and person undertaking it. It is one of the least prescribed activities I can think of, yet paradoxically replete with many antiquated conventions, making it wondruous, exasperating and a constant act of discovery.

I booked the ticket to Stockholm yesterday and my departure date is October 8th. I still have to sort out my accommodation and some other details. I've been thinking of some ideas for a paper to work on in Sweden but I want whatever I work on to be directly relevant to my PhD. My supervisor put forward a helpful suggestion to undertake an inquiry into the research methodology for my project to try to work through some of the issues that remain unresolved. I like this idea because it does have a wider application as well - studying the social dimensions of ICT use in organisations is still relatively new and many researchers working in this area have experimented with methodologies to try to address questions that are not so easily gathered through traditional means. It would be helpful to examine the approaches taken, why they have been taken and consider some of the issues that researchers have had in grappling with how you research people and technology in action.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The meaning of a ship

Two news stories have recently caught my interest. The first is the story of the Australian PM granting $1.3 million dollars to the search for an Australian warship sunk 64 years ago during WWII. The other story I heard on TV last night - the Tasmanian government is apparently planning to sink a ship off the East coast of Tasmania to lure scuba divers to the state in an effort to increase tourism. Curiously, today I can't find any references to this latter story on any of the news services. Anyway, I can't stop thinking about these reports announced 24 hours of each other.

What intrigues me about these stories has something to do with the absurd - in the case of the search for the sunken HMAS Sydney II, the absurdity of spending significant amounts of public money to benefit a small group of Australians in order that they can obtain "closure" about an incident that occurred over half a century ago while
at the same time the government is drastically reducing funding to public services. Of course, this announcement by the Federal government was designed to convey a message to a much broader group of Australians - to make sense of war by summoning notions of meaningful sacrifice and the solving of a national mystery (literally bringing to light decisive evidence of who was to blame) to redress the growing public dis-ease about the senselessness of a war on terror (where there is no clear and decisive enemy.)

I think the absurdity might also have to do with the coincidence of these announcements
(I'm just trying to work this all out so pardon the rambling thoughts). It is absurd to spend public money on the search for a sunken ship and then spend more money to sink another ship. Yet, would these events be absurd if they were not announced on the same day? I have got so used to the Federal government announcements appearing to have a coherent and unified front that the appearance of these two stories by different arms/heads of the government (State and Federal) appears as a rupture in the usual smooth orchestration of the media by the Federal government. The coincidence reveals an official image more akin to the Greek mythological figure of Hydra with its many heads competing in strange and contradictory ways. What is disturbing is how hard it is to to detect these disturbances in the rythmns of the daily news? Of course Hydra is frequently exposed by media commentators and bloggers but it is rare to experience Hydra first hand - to see two of its heads emerge from normally unruffelled waters. Would I be being overly conspiratorial to suspect the sudden disappearance of the story of Tasmania's plans to sink a ship, submerged like an old wreck, its meaning lost to the world?

Friday, August 12, 2005

Power tools

An interesting aside to an interesting discussion on a blog I visit brought up the question of power tools. It occurred to me that I have never explained the photo of me in my profile. Though difficult to detect, slung over my shoulder, is an ice pick and bag of crampons. This is me moments before ascending Fox glacier in the south island of New Zealand last December. Ice is a dazzling medium and it evokes for me a feeling I have trouble expressing in words but will give it a go...the mix of hardness and softness, of permanence and transience - its power to shift mountains, valleys and forests and its ephemerality like so many streams and rivulets after a heavy rain. The silence of ice from afar, surveying its form, hulking as it bears down on the world. The roar from up close, wet and cold against its weeping flesh, voices of its disintegration as it breaks off and runs into cracks, fissures and the black sticky mass of its captured debris. I love its ugly gritty frozen lasting crying fragile hard cold solitary mix of mountain sky earth body water flow wind dark light ness. It reminds me of so many things.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Last day of Master Class

The master class finished today at lunchtime. The last three days have been very stimulating and challenging. Although I felt a bit overwhelmed and a bit daunted on the first day, I warmed up and warmed to Michael Herzfeld over the duration of the Master Class. There were approximately 25-30 people who attended the class from many different Universities around Australia. Professor Herzfeld is the Head of Anthropology at Harvard University and there were a number of anthropologists attending and a distinct majority of the class were women, at around 88%.

At first I found some of the ideas quite difficult to follow. It was not the lack of anthropological background as the class and its content were interdisciplinary and most of the writers referred to in his talk were either a little bit familiar to me or I'd come across their ideas. As much as I enjoyed listening to Michael talk and was impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of Greece and the rest of the world, I felt at times like I was getting lost in the back streets and side alleys drifting away from his point as he eloquently roamed through the history, politics and cultures of a vast number of countries. I felt a little frustrated that I couldn't immediately access and grasp the concepts. However, by the second day I felt their meaning and application slowly creeping up on me. By the end of the second day and particularly the third I started to get a hang of the model and the ideas and to consider potential applications of them to my own topic area. I also really enjoyed talking to the other students and since many of them are further along in their research process than myself, it was particularly valuable to hear about their experiences and their reflections.

This evening I was talking with my partner. A story she told me reminded me of an example that I think illustrates the concept of cultural intimacy and social poetics at work. I thought I'd articulate it in my blog to see how well it applies. When I worked in IT providing technical support, it was not uncommon for other techies and myself to laugh and joke about the stupidities of clients who called up for help. This joking was something that we were embarrassed about. On some level, we felt that it wasn't something we should do. I recall us debating this regularly. We were conscious of its effects. It's immediate effect was to release tension and this was certainly felt to be needed, particularly after experiencing a difficult and abusive call. But on reflection we identified how it reinforced the barrier between the public and the organisation and so we sparingly resorted to this practice.

Reflecting on this now in terms of cultural intimacy, I can see how, by calling the client 'stupid' and 'dumb', the client is metaphorically and literally put down and separated from the group. 'Put down', in the sense of disparaged but also in the very physical sense of setting the client apart from the organisation embodied in the act of putting the phone down and disconnecting. The jokes and laughter have a personal and a social function. They bring individual staff close to each other and unite them in the process of distancing the client and putting them in their place. The group gains solidarity through these acts.
But the release of tension as expressed through jokes goes further than just reinforcing the 'us' and 'them' relationship between the staff and the client. The effect of the cultural intimacy amongst the techies defined by the shared customs used to release tension also normalises the behaviour of the client through a process of naming and classification. 'The dumb one', 'the crazy one' - each client falls into a category, and in the process they are classified and domesticated into a taxonomy that applies to everyone. We are all crazy and dumb at times.

The function of the release valve works to dynamically construct the inside and the outside but it also reproduces the social relation itself at an individual and at an organisational level, by normalising errant behaviour and incorporating it into the order of the group. I think, and could be way off here but I think this process describes social poetics in action.

Friday, August 05, 2005

"Cultural Intimacy"

Currently wading through what has accurately been described as a 'tome' of readings for a Master Class I'm attending next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on "Cultural Intimacy and Social Poetics: a new agenda for cultural research". I found out recently in an email that all students participating will be required to be 'rapporteurs'. What the hell is a rapporteur? I was intrigued by this word which resonated of French and possibly medieval origins.

The image that first came to mind was a cross between someone who goes to restaurants alot and a very fast moving and lethal ground-dwelling dinosaur of the Jurassic period. However, I discovered upon looking it up in that rapporteur has a rather more mundane meaning of being one
who "is designated to give a report, as at a meeting." Definately no food or violent acts involved by the sounds of it, unless we are referring figuratively and a bit dramatically to the verbal assaults that can be delivered at meeting room tables. The rapporteur is someone who brings back as in portare "to carry", an account, in this case to the other meeting participants, although in our case it is being applied to mean that the rapporteur will suggest ways in which the readings and the discussion link with local interests as well as taking notes and outlining the main points and directions at the end of the session.

The whole thing is just making me feel very nervous I have to say and I'm a little concerned that if called upon, I may, as local rapporteur, become the rapporteur of my imagination delivering a belching, gutteral, stuttering and beastly display, rather than the professional, calm and academic performance that will be expected.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Confirmation of Candidature

I completed and passed my Confirmation of Candidature yesterday. It went pretty well and though the panel raised some concerns about the number and selection of research sites, I felt that they were voicing my own thoughts on this matter. They provided some very valuable suggestions. I'm glad I recorded the meeting on digital voice recorder. I was concentrating so much on the presentation, the questions from the panel and the proceedings in general that I would never have been able to take coherent notes as well.

This morning I slept in for the first time since starting my PHD. My dog was pretty happy about that and slept blissfully under the doona without stirring until I eventually rolled out of bed at about 10am.

I'm not feeling quite as exposed today as I did last night, a feeling I always get whenever I deliver a verbal presentation or do something personally challenging that involves a public performance. Fortunately, the panel was very supportive and encouraging and the proceedings, while formal, were not clinical.

I know I need to address some of the problem areas of my research proposal next but I think I might give myself a little breather today...go food shopping, clean up the house a bit, return an overdue library book, read the paper, admire the built-in wardrobes, that sort of thing.

I met up with two of the staff of my old business on Saturday night. It was so great to catch up with them and talk and feel that our lives are still connected but in a new and reinvigorated way. It was very meaningful to me.