What did Bill Henson’s 2008 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery mean? There were two major interpretations served. Columnist Miranda Devine said the presence of infamous images represented the “sexing up of our children”. Prime minister Kevin Rudd, more or less, agreed. Malcolm Turnbull treated us to a rare moment of pure liberalism when he said the exhibition represented “freedom”.
Which was right? They both were.
There's more to Crikey than you think.
Get more Crikey for just
What did the mass shooting by Elliot Rodger in Santa Barbara mean? There were two major interpretation served. A film critic in The Washington Post said the death of seven people was the work of widespread misogyny and, specifically, the films of Judd Apatow. The Daily Mail, more or less, agreed. Sam de Brito treated us to a common moment of pure Brit-ism when he said that the bloody moment signified “mental illness”.
Which was right? They both were.
It is not that in both cases all interpretations have an equal or a verifiable value. Some of these analyses, to be frank, are plain batty. It is, however, that each interpretation serves an identical purpose. And that is to assuage our complex social fear by means of simple cultural criticism.
That reality as we currently experience it provokes a great deal more confusion than it has in previous eras is hardly a controversial claim. All selves are subject to a historically unprecedented range and tangle of anxieties. In a time where the end of the world is not a supernatural fear but a technological possibility, we live with a naturalised sense of crisis. And this foundation of fear is hardly fortified by concerns for our politicians’ indifference, our health and natural or economic disaster.
The easy answer to all of these real fears is to kill the real by interpreting it, to take one concern — like, say, the national reaction to the revelation a famous former athlete is homosexual — and analyse it with such non-stop brutality that by the end of the week, the “real” thing about which we might have been talking is nothing more than a corpse in the morgue of meaning.
If you have not seen any one of the opinion pieces about former athlete Ian Thorpe, you have my admiration. If you have, then you will accept my regret and know that almost without exception, each one of them “celebrated” the courage of a man whose simple and sincere act of sexual honesty earned him this week’s title of Man Most Likely To Prevent Youth Suicide.
Of course, as with any other “controversial” item available to the numb interpretation of a stupid culture, there were two views. One was that Thorpe’s was an act of kind and candid valour that would make the world a better place. The other, of which I can find no long-form written evidence, is that the entire thing was a bit of a yawn.
In a much-shared piece for Fairfax, comedian Tom Ballard was one of the first to defend the vital importance of Thorpe’s declaration. “For those who’ve heard this news and shrug and casually asks ‘who cares?’, I’d simply answer ’15-year-old closeted me’.”
Ballard was hardly the only critic to interpret Thorpe’s testimony as important. Talking, presumably, to those few foolish enough to say “who cares?” on social media, dozens of commentators reminded us how this “matters”. “Yes it Does Matter” said the Japan Times. The Conversation asked and answered: “Do openly gay public figures like Ian Thorpe matter? They sure do”. Over at Mamamia we learn “Why It Matters That Ian Thorpe Came Out”.
To be clear, this is not an interrogation of the claim that “It Matters”. One could argue that the very act of normalising a particular identity necessarily demonises another, but I’ll leave the heartbreaking account of poor bisexual 15-year-old suicidal me for another time. We are not thinking here about whether or not Thorpe does matter. What we might think about is not the veracity of the claim It Matters but the indiscriminate frequency with which this interpretation is applied.
If we search for the assertion in recent news, we can learn Why It Matters To Skate Like A Girl, Facebook’s Mood Experiment; What it Means, and Why it Matters, Wonder Woman’s feminism matters and the provocative essay as to Why Tasmanian pinot noir matters.
It all matters. It is all, in the unfolding of its utterance, the most urgent matter. Like children whose reality principle is not yet developed, we have begun to afford meaning to whichever referent toy catches our fancy.
Another thing that was deemed to “matter” in this week’s interpretive playpen was a company called Wicked Campers. This is a discount rental-car company whose unique selling position is vehicles with slogans that do not bear report but look to be appropriated from T-shirts worn by one’s simple uncle and painted by a tagger of very modest talent. Dissent started with a petition, peaked with a unanimously passed Greens Senate motion to condemn the practice and ended happily yesterday with the company declaring it would paint over its more offensive maxims with, presumably, uplifting fragments from the poetry of Maya Angelou.
It is worth digressive note our Freedom Commish Tim Wilson has defended the right of Wicked Campers to ply its poor trade. Which would be fine if only it were consistent with his very recent defence of the “right” of the public to prevent Muslim thinker Uthman Badar from speaking on honour killings. This negation was a demonstration of how free speech works, he said. To break it down, the moral interpretation of Wilson is: it’s an exercise of the freedom of speech for the public to actively demand the cessation of only Muslim expression they find offensive. Even if this offensive Muslim expression does not take place say, on the road and in full unanticipated view of anyone rather than in an opera house one voluntarily enters at a cost.
It’s all interpretation, as they used to tell us in English class. Although, I never recall a single lecturer insisting that Wuthering Heights MATTERS beyond the scope of the text.
If Ian Thorpe’s declaration had the potential to “matter”, it did not matter by the time it was broadcast. By then, a dozen pieces had emerged arguing with the largely unheard protest that he didn’t matter and so he was not permitted a moment in which to matter because the simple, brutalising and dominant discourse turned from him to whether or not he mattered. And so he didn’t matter nearly as much as the multiple declarations that he did.
We assign the value of meaning to everything, thereby making it valueless.
This impulse to look for a poison and a remedy is inherently fascist. When it comes from power of any kind, including “people power”, the urge to assign a simple blame for a complex problem of social conflict is a brutal naivety. It is a brutality undiminished by the fact that the mob enacting it is largely made of ladies who vote Green in the Upper House and dislike “hate”. Unity is not by definition a positive force.
What would be a truly positive force, perhaps, is the reasoning that sees that the fact of a society that creates injustice — such as the codification of sexual identity or abasement of women — matters much more than the things that represent it on telly or the highway. No matter what Magda Szubanski tells you about the importance of “gay role models”, we live within a social structure to which the conditions of conflict are not optional. They’re essential. One social category, such as handsome homosexual men who speak well, can synthesise eventually into “normal” people. There will be a new class of the underprivileged to take their place.
Hey, it might even be the openly confused people who refuse to agree that everything “matters”.
We want to believe that the solutions are before us. We yearn for a faith that gives us easy reform and not a complex and violent break with a past that demands injustice. We are ravenous for meaning in a time of extraordinary confusion. So we interpret the good and the bad and find ourselves believing that some shitty message on a budget rental van promotes a revulsion for the feminine that has existed for Western millennia. We don’t have the political imagination to see that injustice is inherent to Our Way of Life so we look, instead, for small demons to exorcise.
Of course, this could describe other eras, too. Life Is Terrible Where Is Someone To Blame. We are not the first servants of history to look for an easy solution to a complex problem like conflict. We won’t be the last.
But we are perhaps the first to have so many solutions and such an oversupply of interpretation. This matters. That matters. Everything, it seems, but the foundation on which our structural need for injustice matters.
The declaration “it matters” is a simple brutality for a complex age. We might stop looking for things that “matter” and start recovering the remnants of a real near dead from the violence of interpretation.