Tara Brabazon: From little things big things grow

Monographs are miniatures of scholarship, but some people artfully build them into microcosmic extravaganzas that inspire Tara Brabazon

November 18, 2009

Reading is better than shopping. Reading is the soundtrack for our brain to dance. Unfortunately, most reading – of minutes, agendas and strategic plans – is like a dad dancing at a wedding. Pleasant and predictable swaying predominates until randomly feral movements explode in response to the first few bars of a song by the Village People or Queen. Gentle biographies beckon the immersive ambience of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Staggering through staunch texts on globalisation and intellectual property rights is as exciting as an afternoon tea dance without the gin flask in the hip pocket.

Reading is a privilege. Writers gift us the spark of knowledge and flash of insight. They spend mornings, nights and weekends away from their families and friends, shadowed by artificial light and swallowing the primary food groups of caffeine, cola and crisps for sustenance. Through their sacrifice, commitment and vision, they save us time. We are able to learn, grow, disagree, feel and consider an array of ideas that – if life lasted as long as radioactive waste – we might have been able to discover on our own.

Yes, I bought a Kindle, Amazon’s wireless electronic reading device. For people like me, a Kindle is the equivalent of a digital drug dealer. The only difference between Amazon and the pusher on the corner is that Amazon takes a credit card. Shopping and reading synchronise. While the Kindle shop has too many self-help books for my taste, there are enough joyously weird academic monographs to keep me busy until Christmas. In 2030.

Whether they are analogue or digital, I am drawn to a very special sub-category of scholarly books. While I admire the sweeping histories and landmark theoretical texts that revise intellectual discourse, that respect rarely spills into love. I have an intense connection with a few books that are extravagantly and bravely defiant and different. If the research excellence framework measured impact as the capacity to smash unusual ideas together to see if the resultant cacophony is a Pollock (Jackson) or a Pollard (Vicky), then my favourite books would be so dominant that the rest of us should pack up our keyboards and lie on a hammock for the next few years. Luckily, for those of us lacking such audacious imagination, this type of radical and passionate scholarship is rarely categorised as “research” any more.

I am drawn to the monographs that take small ideas, moments, events or objects and use them to understand major issues of our time: war, terrorism, social injustice, intellectual despair or collective loss. Something seemingly insignificant – a song, an organisation, a law – reflects large contextual concerns. The resultant projects are applicable and extraordinary, transforming fragments and filaments of culture into the building blocks of social challenge and change.

One of my favourite books of this type – ever – is Michael Streissguth’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece. Streissguth uses one day in the life of Johnny Cash to understand prison reform, class, race, religion, redemption, popular culture and masculinity. I remember the moment I opened this book. It was so extraordinary that time seemed to stop. With full consciousness, I realised that my worldview was changing as my eyes flicked through the lines that became pages and then chapters.

Great books are inspirational and humbling. I remain fascinated by David Nolan’s I Swear I Was There: The Gig That Changed the World. He takes one performance – the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, 4 June 1976 – and focuses on members of the (small) audience rather than the concert. The thousands of people who have subsequently insisted that they were “there” would overfill the Radisson Hotel that now occupies the location. Nolan shows how this one night changed popular music.

While music is the punctuation of our daily lives, the research topics that I relish with the anticipation of a dental appointment are the dense and dry bundle of ideas feeding into copyright and debates about media freedom. However, in Media Freedom under the Human Rights Act, Helen Fenwick and Gavin Phillipson, by taking the Human Rights Act 1998 as their focus, are able to create a riveting explanation of the transformations to broadcast media through the shifting relationship between privacy, free speech, hate speech and copyright. These enormous issues are probed through one Act, provoking a powerful question: is there a right not to be offended? Further, is the right not to be offended more important than protecting freedom of speech?

Christopher May took another seemingly dull topic – albeit one with enormous power. He wrote a monograph on the comically named WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The WIPO community are not the sort of people who feature on the list of exciting people to invite to a party. May’s book shows that WIPO is part of a wider history of international “forum proliferation”, but it argues that even though this body is close to invisible when compared with the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, its processes involve carefully (and arbitrarily) constructing a concept of “scarcity” in relation to digitised information where no such shortage exists. If Foucault were still alive and interested in copyright, then May’s fascinating study would be downloaded into his leather-clad – and probably studded – Kindle.

One book ignited my thinking about this very special collection of authors. It was the first downloaded to my Kindle: Michael Indergaard’s Silicon Alley: The Rise and Fall of a New Media District. My notes from this book are almost as long as the text itself. The author takes a small moment in history, spanning from just before the dot-com bubble burst through to the economic wreckage after 11 September 2001. He then reads this period through the shifting landscape of New York, exploring how finance capital and techno-evangelists triggered social and economic chaos. All the familiar tropes of the new economy are present: urban regeneration, geeks drinking overpriced coffee, brands without content and entrepreneurs sniffing out easy returns from decadent techno-fuelled consumption.

Through this small study, Indergaard constructs nothing less than the history of post-industrial decline by combining the historical and geographical filaments of Silicon Alley. He tries to understand why supposedly independent, anti-corporate, techno-libertarians collaborated (in the many meanings of that word) with media and financial giants – and realises how quickly economic hyperbole obscures creative “development”.

What makes the books by Indergaard and the others so evocative is that they offer no pretence of causality, linearity or pseudo-scientific objectivity. The scale and complexity of their ideas are explored through something as small and specialist as a song, organisation or moment in history.

Put another way: from little things, big things grow. This phrase is the title of a song recorded by indigenous Australian singer-songwriter Kev Carmody, which he co-wrote with Paul Kelly. Its lyric reveals the casual racism and brutal colonialism that lie beneath the bright surfaces of popular culture. It relates the true story of resistance to colonial injustice in 1966 by Vincent Lingiari, an employee at Wave Hill Cattle Station in the Northern Territory who demanded that Aboriginal stockmen receive the same wages as their white counterparts, along with recognition of their land rights. One man stood against injustice. Similarly, this single song has reclaimed a pivotal and resolute moment to provide a memory of more expansive social change.

Most of us are surrounded by ideologically saturated and historically heavy words that demand big – if soggy – results. “Vision”, “synergy” and “strategy” are currently the favourite organisation sandbags. I am not sure if blokes in suits talking about synergetic visions enabling post-2010 strategies motivate anyone, but I wish them well. Nice tie. Shame about the shoes. Nevertheless – going forward? – I prefer subtle studies that hint at possibilities, potentials, chances, risk and courage.

Inspired by these remarkable books on micro-moments, my goal – the dream – remains small. Writing well is difficult. Writing to evoke, inform and charm is almost impossible. At the end of my career, the hope is to look back and smile with satisfaction at one sentence I have written. A paragraph is greedy. A page is gluttonous. One good sentence is the most we can hope to achieve. From that little hope, big things may grow.

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