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Jacket 17 — June 2002   |   # 17  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

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McKenzie Wark

Black Swan of Trespass

This piece is 1,450 words or about three printed pages long

Nostalgia is the vice of seeing one’s particular past as having universal significance. Like everyone born in the 60s or later, I learned this through the nauseating repetition of misty remembrances of the 1960s by people who were around then — or claim they were. As the years go by, this increasingly takes the even more that usually tiresome form of a gnashing of (false) teeth about how wrong everyone got it in the 1960s, and how we really need to return to the values of the 1950s, instead. As if nothing had been said or done in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
      So it was with some fear and loathing that I shook the dust off my documents from the 1980s, in order to write something about them, in my book The Virtual Republic.[1] I have an allergic reaction to old paper, for one thing, so I see even my own past through the delirium of a sneezing fit and a handful of antihistamines. That my body wants to expel the dust of the past as quickly as it inhales it seems to me an entirely healthy mechanism.
      Nostalgia is not yet history. Things are too close, the selection process too personal. An honest nostalgia, it seems to me, has to remain provisional, particular. A network of memories, still waiting on that conversation that will streamline it into a public history. The particulars of the 1980s I wanted to recall are those things that to me seemed to mark for me what was contemporary.
      The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes a contemporary as ‘someone in whom we recognise a voice or a gesture which reaches us from a hitherto unknown but immediately familiar place, something which we discover we have been waiting for, or rather, which has been waiting for us.’ [2] That which I want to recall from the misty world of nostalgia are those writings that seemed, at the time, to me at least, absolutely necessary to describing the experience of the contemporary itself.
      So I started with a bit of personal archaeology about the rhetorics and practices of postmodern culture in Sydney in the 1980s. A culture that, if one understands a little about it, about what hopes, what energies it expressed, doesn’t appear quite as sinister as it appeared in the culture wars of the 1990s.
      Nor was postmodernism entirely unprecedented. Far from being just an ignorance about the past, the postmodern condition has a history, and is itself a particular kind of understanding of history. Not that much of this is yet public knowledge. Postmodernism has what American essayist Greil Marcus calls a secret history, ‘... the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language...’. [3]
      Marcus, a brilliant essayist but a bit of a 1960s kind of guy, tells a story about the 1980s that excavates the punk insurrection, and traces its subterranean connections back to the insurrectionary avant gardes that periodically burst upon the stage of western history, such as Dada and the Situationists. It’s an historical configuration that Marcus sees as embodying the ‘... demand to live not as an object but as a subject of history — to live as if something actually depended on one’s actions.’
      That insurrectionary moment had its effects in Sydney city culture. Punk subjectivity left its traces, as I recall, and as Vivien Johnson records in her evocative book on legendary band Radio Birdman. When they played French’s Tavern, it could be an exhilarating, even frightening thing. That moment when, if you are out of it enough, it seems like the noise, the movement, the crowd, the space, everything conspires to willfully rip culture apart from the insides out. [4]
      The moment that interests me seems to come two beats after that, and embodies a different passion. The postmodern moment dwells in the lee of the failure of the project of becoming the subject of history. After the curtain closes on those radical moments comes the inevitable feeling of lost possibility, of despair and soul searching.
      But after that comes a certain scepticism, a certain relief that the true believers, in either their optimistic or pessimistic phase, did not prevail. After revolutionary and activist modernism comes a conservative modernism of devout quietude, and after that comes the postmodern opening to another time. Which as we shall see is something else again.
      This is the temporality of modern culture that repeats itself, again and again, the dialectical two-step. First come the Angry Penguins, then comes Harold Stewart and James McAuley to play their cruel hoax on the radical pretensions of the Penguins, by inventing a revolutionary proletarian poet for them — Ern Malley. When this cruel poppy-lopping hoax comes into the tabloid light, the Penguins claim that the Malley poems are really inspired genius, let loose from inhibition by the cloak of the phantom Malley, the two cranky anti-radicals were really at their best. Ern Malley, affirmed, denied, affirmed again.
      One-two, one-two, around and around the parade ground this argument goes. But Malley, the black swan of trespass, remains as his biographer Michael Heyward says ‘an enigma half a century of debate has not solved.’ [5] The enigma of writing, of language, of art, of authorship — if you want something to set you thinking about those things then Malley is your man. That’s what makes him a postmodern figure.
      Perhaps, against this rhythm of cultural history, the postmodern isn’t a third beat, but is something altogether untimely, a way of thinking and acting that always waits in the wings. Like the way Malley waits to be made into something more than a note in the history of Australian letters.
      Jean-François Lyotard, the man who, probably more than any other, put the idea of the postmodern in circulation in the 1980s, says that postmodern writing ‘denies itself the solace of good forms... which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable...’. It ‘proceeds at its own pace. Montaigne is the absolute model here. Writing marches to its own beat and it has no debts.’ [6]
      In other words, for its leading advocate, the postmodern isn’t the same thing as the contemporary. It’s not a question of being on the same downbeat as one’s others. It’s the passage to a quite other cultural time, or a quite other understanding of cultural time. One that isn’t linear, has no top or bottom, has no family tree. Rather, its a secret history of strange liaisons that take place under cover of the textual night.
      The postmodern is a particular kind of aesthetic that happens, again and again, when one feels the cool texture of the dark underside of the page, rather than being caught like a bunny in the headlights of whatever is momentarily manifest on the surface of the text. It’s where Ern Malley ceases to be an either/ or figure, and becomes an and-also one. Not either a hoax or a genius, but necessarily both, allied and connected to both modern affirmation and its negation.
      As Gilles Deleuze always says, the line of escape starts with a betrayal, a refusal of belonging, a turning in of one’s dog tags. ‘Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience.’ [7]
      And so, paradoxically, the key figure of the 1980s is for me Ern Malley. To think of the 1980s outside of nostalgia, outside of the vague clustering of identity that the repetitive beat of cultural time instills, took a detour into the silent passages of cultural time, the very source of the productivity that manifests itself in the light of day as the two-step of culture war.
      The postmodern, in its untimely surfacing, is a break-beat in the ‘wrong’ place, at the wrong time. Yet its an aesthetic moment that happens again and again. The question that remains, is: why? What connects this other Ern Malley to the 80s, a time when in Australian art and writing this surfacing of the textual underside flourished? Perhaps it’s just a temporary oscillation of figure and ground. Just for a moment, one hears the sound, not the music. One sees the vector, not the text.
      One perceives what irony is, in its action, one grasps its productivity, not its product. Culture moves through tiny displacements. The disorder that displacement causes excites contemporary passions, for and against. But also, sometimes, something else: the black swan of trespass, the fluid line of escape itself.


[1] McKenzie Wark, The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the 1990s, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘The Deleuzian Fold of Thought’ in Paul Patton (ed) Deleuze: A Critical Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1996, p107

[3] Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1989, pp1-11. Also recommended are his books Mystery Train, Penguin, New York, 1990; In the Fascist Bathroom: Writings on Punk, Penguin, London, 1994; The Dustbin of History, Picador, London, 1996. My essay in appreciation of Marcus is in World Art, No. 1, 1997

[4] Vivien Johnson, Radio Birdman, Sheldon Booth, Melbourne, 1990; see also Philip Hayward (ed), From Pop to Punk to Postmodernism, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992; John Potts & McKenzie Wark, ‘Play That Funky Music White Boy’, Communal / Plural, No. 4, Sydney, 1995

[5] Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair, Faber, London, 1993, p235

[6] Jean-François Lyotard, Lyotard, ThePostmodern Condition, 1984, University of Minneapolis Press, Minnesota, p81;Just Gaming, University of Minneapolis Press, Minnesota, 1985, p8

[7] Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, 1997, p1

Photo of McKenzie Wark McKenzie Wark is the author of Virtual Republic (Allen & Unwin) and Virtual Geography (Indiana UP). Texts of his online include ‘A Hacker Manifesto’, at
An extract from his forthcoming book Dispositions can be found in Jacket #14.

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