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crikey15

Apr 30, 2015

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In overwhelmingly empty news to hand, the image-sharing app Instagram has taken a moral stand on eggplant. The stand against this fruit has not been taken on Paleo grounds but, apparently, for the way it is newly used as a search term by those fluent in emoji.

These pictograms, whose use was locally legitimised by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, are now in frequent enough exchange that they have begun to function as a sort of language. Just like words in English, icons in emoji can refer to things other than the literal object they represent and so, apparently, eggplant now means penis.

This is a great shock to me and, I imagine, the entire emoji-illiterate community, who would have naturally supposed that the male organ was already signified on smartphones by a more visually verbatim dick. Probably a bright yellow one with a single happy winking eye.

Surely there must be greater use for a cartoon penis in an emerging language than a cartoon aubergine. Then again, scholars who have given their lives to the study of the phallus in language remind us that this threshold signifier only holds its power by remaining symbolically veiled.

As Jacques Lacan might have said if he lived into the era of emoji, “LOL OMFG Aubergine Clapping Hands Doughnut”.

That anyone but a linguist should give any work at all to emoji penis analysis might seem silly and if you are already impatient with the matter, you are probably quite sane.

Nonetheless, emoji has begun to function as a Rosetta Stone for the complex exchanges of meaning in our time, and to ignore its frequent discussion in traditional and social media is, possibly, to ignore the radically changing nature of representation itself.

For some months, a campaign to add racially diverse face symbols to emoji built and ended in recent and widely reported success. This seems kind of nice and inclusive until you consider that the initial emoji faces were not representative of whiteness but formed from an obviously synthetic school-bus yellow.

This cuneiform was as racially charged as Hello Kitty, which is to say, not at all. To presume that the original emoji had as its referent some sort of Caucasian hegemon instead of any mobile device user is some really weird humanism.

To be tediously clear, saying that emoji had no racist undertones is not at all the same thing as saying that the world is not racist. The world is clearly racist. But hexadecimal diversity will do nothing to promote material diversity in institutions outside text message.

In fact, there is an argument that the imposition of racial categories into a language where there were previously none — not even the dominant culture’s presumed whiteness but just a canary-yellow blob — is self-defeating identity politics.

Yes, I am quite aware that a discussion of cultural and social identity in the context of text messages seems like a stupid excess, but it wasn’t me who started it and it certainly wouldn’t have been my preference to see, as we did, last week, a discussion of drug abuse and emoji.

Actual adult human journalists reported on a study that revealed that Australians use more beer and drug pictograms than the 15 other nations surveyed.

Let’s set aside the concern that our emoji data is being retained and just ask: WTF. There are more reliable data on Australian drug consumption available than how many beer icons we send to our friends.

If we want to know about the problems of racism, drugs or dick pics, there are more dependable studies than emoji. But in this era of hashtags and inert thinking, we look increasingly to an absolutely symbolic register of meaning in order to fix the real.

To call our time post-material hardly begins to do justice to the blank idiocy of such discussion.

I understand that people want to be nice and that these moments of symbolic inclusion, or, as in the case of the eggplant penis, exclusion, are intended morally and well. But if we believe, and we increasingly do, that everything bad in the world can be fixed by recourse to representation, we necessarily forget the real those symbols purport to represent.

It’s not just a case of not having time to address both the materiality of real-life problems like racism, drug abuse or abusive amateur porn and their representation. It’s a case of representation eclipsing the real itself.

In a world where an eggplant is permitted to represent a penis or a beer is seen as genuine evidence of a social problem, the scope for material change closes to a point that focuses entirely on the symbolic.

We see this not only in discussion around emoji but in questions on the nature of discourse itself. The way to fix social problems is increasingly seen as a discursive one, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the great demand for better “role models” in media or the use of the self, and the selfie, as a route to social change.

The deaths of Chan and Sukumaran stand as brutal and heartbreaking reminders of the biopower of the modern state. But some of the real-life emoji protest against these acts are disturbing.

For all its good intentions, the I Stand For Mercy video released two days ago, and alternately critiqued and commended, is a document of our emerging blankness and disdain for the real.

Here we see actors and celebrities empty not only of the most basic understanding of realpolitik — “The time for diplomacy is over” urges one naive militarist — but of the existence of the real.

This is not to say that the several people who held out their selfie-sticks and filmed themselves saying emotional things at the peak of their weepy sincerity did not mean well. But the belief in the use of the symbol, the celebrity or the role model as something that can truly effect material change is almost complete.

Again. They mean very well and have devoted time and tears to what they believe to be action. That their aims are good is not in question. That they could do anything beyond expressing public grief is not in question. There was, in the case of the recent executions, very little that could be practically done.

But Brendan Cowell’s explanation — you can see him in the video, he’s the guy who asks our Prime Minister to show some eggplants — that he was heartbroken doesn’t really excuse this latest celebrity outpouring. Cowell and all the others in the video, despite their noble aims, are really only serving their own interests as functioning symbols in the language of celebrity hieroglyph.

That these people, like so many others, believe that “standing for” and representing a concept can lead beyond representation itself is peculiar. But entirely forgivable, I guess, in a world where a penis is also an eggplant.

Asia-Pacific

Feb 19, 2015

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(Photos: Finbar O’Mallon)

In letters read at vigils around Australia last night, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan thanked the public for their support, with Sukumaran saying, “Whatever happens, I know that me and Andrew are good people now”.

Hundreds of people braved the rain at Federation Square in Melbourne last night, where artist Matthew Sleeth, Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry and journalist Mark Davis addressed the crowd, calling for “ampuni”, which is the most formal way to ask for mercy in Indonesia. Vigils were held around Australia last night, including in Sydney and Perth. MC Eddie Perfect opened the proceedings in Melbourne by saying that the vigil would not be passive, but an active way to show Sukumaran and Chan that they weren’t alone.

Sleeth and Perfect read out letters from Chan and Sukumaran, who both said they had been “blessed” despite the sentence. Chan called for people to remember the spirit of the campaign. “This campaign is about more than myself and Myu. It represents a second chance and forgiveness, kindness and help for those in a helpless situation. Mercy represents all of us here. Please don’t let this just be about myself and Myu but about others all over the world who need your help. ”

Sukumaran said the campaign made them determined to be better people.

“It has helped our families so much. It makes us even more determined to be better people and to do more to help people, to show more kindness like that which everyone has given us, especially our families.”

 

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Greens leader Christine Milne attended the vigil in Melbourne, which included musical performances by Clare Bowditch, Bob Evans and Missy Higgins. Higgins, who gave birth to her first child last month, dedicated her song “Forgive me” to the mothers of Chan and Sukumaran.

Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry emphasised the ways in which the men had changed in ten years in prison.

“The reality is that if Indonesia go ahead and execute these two men, they’ll be killing an artist and a church pastor. The drug traffickers have gone. The drug traffickers left in 2005.”

Sleeth spoke about the ways in which Sukuamran and Chan had contributed to life in Kerobokan prison, comparing the productivity of the art studio they established in the prison to a TAFE.

“If these executions go ahead we will all be diminished, both Australians and Indonesians,” he said.

Matthew Goldberg from the Mercy Campaign told the crowd that the online petition asking for clemency for the pair had now grown to 200,000 signatures.

The crowd included many families and children, with one toddler wearing a bib that said “keep hope alive”. One attendee told Crikey that she attended out of a sense of justice, and while others said the vigil gave them a sense of hope as well as sadness.

Tips and rumours

Feb 11, 2015

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Take me to the April Sun … When he isn’t co-signing motions calling for a leadership spill, Liberal backbencher Don Randall has other important projects on the go. On Monday Randall emailed all federal MPs to invite them to be part of an Australia-Cuba Parliamentary Group to mark the appointment of a new Cuban ambassador to Australia. According to an email from Randall, seen by Crikey, the group has the blessing of the Foreign Minister, following the “normalising relationship between Cuba and the United States”. The first meeting was supposed to be this morning, but was cancelled yesterday by Randall, who assured his colleagues that he hadn’t lost interest, but he was waiting until the new ambassador could join the meeting next month. We’re hoping that someone is also bringing cigars — that would guarantee Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann would be in attendance.

Continue reading “Tips and rumours”

Asia-Pacific

Feb 3, 2015

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I don’t recall the specifics of my reaction, in April 2005, when news broke of the arrest of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and their compatriots in Bali for heroin trafficking. I vaguely recall feeling dismay, incredulity at how quickly their plans appeared to have come unstuck, and a sense of relief (or perhaps it was smug satisfaction) that I would never find myself in such agonisingly difficult circumstances. In any case, a few months later my son was born and I was, for a time, seemingly insulated from world events by the cocoon of early parenthood. Perhaps it is because I was occupied with the needs of an infant that the execution, in December of that year, of Australian Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore did not even register in my consciousness. This apparent oversight is something that now seems both unforgivable and portentous.

Almost a decade has passed since then, and those events, which I grimly appraised and filed away with such apparent equanimity, have come back to haunt me. And it seems only fair. There must have been some enormous blunder, a tragic lapse of attention, for it to all have come to this. And part of the inattention was mine.

Ten years on, I find myself unable to turn my gaze away from the predicament of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, from the anguished hope and despair on the faces of their families, from the bleak pronouncements of their legal team and the terrible contemplation of the fate that seems likely to await them.

I have had my own apprenticeship in loss recently. In the space of 10 months I lost four members of my family, including my father. The inexorable progress of my dad’s terminal illness and death was something I witnessed at close range. I watched, heartbroken, his evolving awareness of his own demise, as his quiet hopes for a reprieve — another year, a month, a few more weeks — were extinguished, one by one. Dad’s death was only made tolerable by the knowledge that, at 72, his life had reached a natural conclusion of sorts and his most visceral fear, that of being alone, was mitigated by the presence of a loving family in his final days.

As events in Indonesia gather pace, what preoccupies me every day — and what torments me at night — are thoughts of how Myuran and Andrew will die, and the certain knowledge that whatever comfort is to be found will only be that they can offer themselves. I try, to no avail, not to imagine what Myuran and Andrew must be feeling, after clinging to hope for many years and working so hard to better themselves.

It is not clear what particular alchemy gave rise to the extraordinary transformation in these young men. Living with the threat of death for almost a decade must be a sobering experience, but friendships, family bonds, mentors and perhaps an intrinsically compassionate element of the Indonesian penal system have all played a role in their rehabilitation. The dynamics of change are undoubtedly complex and elusive, and for most of us, they would require a lifetime to fully appreciate. Like many people, I made terrible mistakes when I was younger. No laws were broken; my transgressions were of the more mundane variety although, viewed from a certain vantage point, they were perhaps no better. Certainly my proximity to the people I hurt was greater. By virtue of living in a particular time and place, there was no penalty for my mistakes, but that does not mean I have not reflected on or had cause to deeply regret some of the things I’ve done. I know with certainty that I would never repeat them.

As the campaign for mercy swells in Australia and within the international community, events have marched inexorably forward, toward an outcome that remains painfully obscure. As I set these words down, there is still hope for Andrew and Myuran. I have to hold onto this hope because I have a sense that it’s all I have left. As I enter middle age, grappling with the loss of my father and my fears for a son who will undoubtedly make mistakes of his own, my sense of relief that it’s not happening to me has diminished. If there is no mercy for Myu and Andrew, if there’s no prospect of change both in ourselves and in the world, something vital has failed. I don’t know what precisely, but I have a feeling it’s because we thought it wasn’t happening to us, and we looked away. We didn’t pay attention.

Tips and rumours

Jan 27, 2015

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Langton wants the NIT. The National Indigenous Times is up for sale, and while its current owners are keen to buy it back off its administrators if they can, Crikey understands there’s interest from other quarters as well. Polarising Aboriginal scholar and land rights activist Marcia Langton is one of those expressing an interest in buying the publication. Langton has been previously published in the fortnightly paper, which releases its first edition of the year this week despite its administration.

Jones and Greer standing up for drug smugglers. They are unlikely allies, but Alan Jones and Germaine Greer have appeared together in a video by the Mercy Campaign in support of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the Australians facing the death penalty in Indonesia for drug trafficking. The video is part of a concerted campaign to save the two men, who were sentenced to death in 2006 for trying to smuggle heroin into Australia. It has been reported today that their executions will not be ordered for at least another week, while an “evaluation” of the executions of six other drug offenders takes place. A concert is also being organised to show support for the men and will take place in Sydney on Thursday night, although a venue is yet to be confirmed. The concert is organised by celebrated artist Ben Quilty, who has befriended the pair and will feature artists such as Megan Washington and Josh Pyke. The campaign is asking supporters to sign their petition in a bid to have the sentences reduced. While the PM has already publicly called for the Indonesian government to reconsider the penalties, it wouldn’t hurt for Australians to let their local MPs know how they feel about the sentences.

A party with no people? With just days until Queenslanders head to the polls, we are also starting to hear some tips from our NSW election watchers, one of whom has pointed out that the No Land Tax Party is using stock photos on its websites next to testimonies that it says are from real people:

The use of the stock images is documented (hilariously) here, but we decided to ask the No Land Tax Party why they were using images that weren’t actually of their members. President of the party James Ruben told us:

“The short answer to your question is that our campaign, despite having thousands of members, and significant grass roots support, literally didn’t have the funding to pay for professional photography of the people who made those testimonials. If we were granted millions of dollars of tax payer money months before an election, in the same way that the major political parties in NSW are, we would have more funds for the development of our website.”

We also asked if it was misleading to use such pictures, and Ruben said: “The testimonials are genuine and not misleading”. We asked if they would continue to use the photos or get new ones, but there was no reply to the question. Ruben stressed to Crikey that the limits on fundraising for new minor parties were onerous, making it difficult to put a campaign together for all the seats, which the party is planning on doing. Ruben also told us that the party had a strong membership base. We have to say, even unprofessional shots of real people would be a better look than images of models that can be found anywhere on the net.

Going, going … Our silent auction of a bottle of red wine signed by the five minor party MPs in the Victorian upper house has less than 24 hours to go, and the current top bid is $350, with all proceeds going to Camp Quality. If you want to get your hands on the bottle (the entertaining back story is here), send us an email with the subject line “red wine auction bid $  — ”. Bids will be taken up until 11am tomorrow, and the winning bid will be announced in tomorrow’s Tips and Rumours.

Singing for security. We received this tip from a source in the know at the Sydney Opera House on Friday:

“One would think that the Opera House being an Australian icon and possible target would have watertight security and alarm procedures. But there has not been an evacuation drill for years until today, Friday. And no alarms worked!”

We have contacted the Opera House to ask if an evacuation drill took place on Friday and if alarms were working, and were told:

“The Opera House conducted a routine evacuation drill on Friday 23 January 2015. We confirm that the evacuation tones were activated. To reduce the risk of panic and any associated injuries, an auditorium announcement was made prior to the emergency systems being activated at the end of the performance. The Opera House conducts major full house and venue specific emergency and security exercises on a regular basis. The Opera House also conducts a weekly testing of our evacuation alarm system. The safety and security of our staff and everyone visiting our site is paramount. The Sydney Opera House works closely with NSW Police and relevant authorities on security matters and implements appropriate measures based on their advice.”

Haters gonna hate, hate, hate. While debate and think pieces continue to dissect the phenomenon of #Tay4Hottest100, (for those who have managed to ignore it — BuzzFeed campaigned for Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off to win the Hottest 100, and it was disqualified by the station), we are glad to know that the Young Liberal Movement have taken a position on the issue. This motion was passed at their annual conference on Saturday afternoon, condemning any move to disqualify Taylor Swift from the poll as “the ABC undertaking North Korean democracy”. We’re sure the motion was written in haste, but is this handwriting (and spelling) the result of a life spent on computers? These young folks could learn a thing or two if they picked up a pen more often.

Who’s out of touch now? More gold out of the Twitter account of one Rupert Murdoch over the weekend, when the media mogul complained of how “Hollywood leftists” were trashing “American Hero”, showing how “completely out of touch they are with America”. “Brave Clint Eastwood!”, he typed, before thousands responded that he’d gotten the name of the film wrong. “Yes, American Sniper!!”, he tweeted two minutes later. We will say this about Murdoch — he never deletes his mistakes.

Queensland — the strong state. There has been a lot of coverage about how often Queensland Premier Campbell Newman repeats the word “strong” when airing his pitch to voters, but one tipster snapped this picture in the electorate of Southport, where the Labor candidate is also plugging himself as a “strong voice”. Creativity is obviously not the name of the game here. With just four days left until the Queensland election, let us know if you see anything interesting on the campaign trail.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Books

May 9, 2014

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At the beginning of 2013, Brigid Delaney (@BrigidWD) attended a silent retreat. Bending the definition of “silent” somewhat, she tweeted the whole thing.

 

Delaney told Crikey this wasn’t cheating. “I was literally silent,” she said.

That the retreat managed to keep Delaney’s mouth shut was something of an achievement. Perhaps it would have been too much to ask that it curb her rampant tweeting, too. And it is rampant. “I tweet every day,” she said, “many times a day. I use Twitter like a stream of consciousness. It’s very quotidian. I also tweet a lot of news and culture stories.”

Her Twitter feed is thus a fairly accurate representation of her personality as a whole: Delaney the journalist jostles with Delaney the anti-death penalty activist and both have to contend with Delaney the self-styled clown. (She once locked herself in a bathroom and tried to escape by fashioning a key out of soap. She tweeted about it, of course.)

More recently, Delaney the novelist has made an appearance on the feed, following the publication of her first fictional effort, Wild Things, last month. “I’m tweeting some book-related stuff,” Delaney said, “but trying not to overload my feed with it.”

Set on the campus of an exclusive university, Wild Things follows the members of a college cricket team in the wake of a wild weekend in the mountains where a Malaysian student, dragged along for the ride, goes missing.

“I went to a university college and thought it was a fascinating world,” Delaney said. “It was a kind of halfway place — closed, secretive, with its own rituals and language — but at the same time attached to universities where new ideas and fresh thinking were the order of the day. I found moving between the two places really interesting, particularly at 18, when everything felt so new and novel.”

“As a journalist and a former lawyer, I also became interested in people who commit crimes in groups,” she said. “How is the group regulated when they are operating outside the law? How do a large group of people keep a secret? Does getting away with a crime embolden people to act recklessly and think they can be bad without consequence? Another big question was how power works in Australia. A lot of the powerful networks start at school and university.”

The book, which Delaney began in 2006, has been a long time coming. “There were technical challenges,” she said. “It was initially written in the first-person plural, which proved to be a lovely voice but too tricky to sustain in a long-form project. I had to scrap most of it and start again.”

In the meantime she wrote another book, This Restless Life, a non-fictional account of her generation’s hyper-mobile existence, hopping from job to job, lover to lover, city to city. Delaney has never quite shrugged off the restless life herself. She spent three months a year in New York City for the past two, travels to Indonesia regularly with her anti-death penalty work, and is this year planning trips to West Papua and Japan. “This Restless Life used a different part of my brain,” she said. “It was like a large op-ed, a book of ideas, not of characters.”

Delaney’s next project is a collection of interconnected short stories set in the world of Sydney media. “It’s called The Disruptions, and it takes place over the course of the NSW Labor years, roughly 2000 to 2010,” she said. “It’s about the effect of the internet on the world of print media and the lives of all these youngish journos.”

She’s now back in Australia after her latest overseas jaunt and working as director of news at the New Daily.

@BrigidWD’s #FF:

  • Virginia Lloyd (@v11oyd): For all things books
  • Alex McClintock (@axmcc): On boxing and the news of the day
  • Jessica Reed (@guardianjessica): French Guardianista
  • Susannah Guthrie (@susg91): Journalist at The New Daily, celebs and style
  • David Johnson (@_struct): Acerbic Melbourne man about town

On Australia’s media landscape…

I think now is a really good time to be a freelancer. There are some green shoots that make me feel very optimistic and excited about the future of the Australian media. The New Daily, The Saturday Paper and The Guardian Australia are three amazing new ventures that provide new outlets for journalists and more choice for readers. You pay $3 for the Saturday Paper — a bargain — and The Guardian and the New Daily are free. That’s a great deal for readers. I found the hardest years of freelancing were in 2010-11. There was a lot of pessimism amongst the big media companies and lay-offs. I saw my work drop off and word rates go backwards. These new media outlets were yet to appear. I considered leaving journalism and started studying for the bar exam. I thought it was all over.

On the Mercy Campaign and the death penalty…

I don’t think the state should have the power to take lives. It’s such a final, irreversible step, and doesn’t allow for the fact that a conviction might be wrongful. Albert Camus wrote: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared?” I also believe in rehabilitation. The work that Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran — two of the Australians condemned to death in Bali — do in Kerobokan is great. They are helping other prisoners learn English, have set up a computer room, and Myuran has set up art classes. Artist Ben Quilty has been into the jail to assist him with those classes. There are a lot of positive things happen there in a prison that we often hear only negative things about. I’ll disclose my involvement in Reprieve and the Mercy Campaign if I’m writing about the issue. I’ve done a lot of op-eds on the issue, because I do have strong opinions about it and feel very strongly that it shouldn’t exist.

The Bali campaign is called The Mercy Campaign. It’s a chance for people to respectfully ask the Indonesian President to spare the lives of Andrew and Myuran. I’m also involved in Reprieve, which sends Australian interns to the southern states of the US to assist attorneys there on capital cases. The program has been going for around 11 years and has assisted in getting prisoners off death row. I’m immensely proud of the work young Australians do over there, on their own time and their own dime. It says something about how poorly funded the American capital defence system is when you have Aussie volunteers propping it up. Reprieve has also started working closer to home, on death penalty cases in Asia. I don’t believe that fighting against the death penalty is a lost cause. The Asian countries that we have started working in are mostly keen to modernise and engage with human rights. Indonesia in particular has shown a waning appetite for the death penalty. Particularly when their own residents are facing it abroad in countries such as Saudi Arabia. As for Andrew and Myuran’s plight, I would encourage anyone who cares to sign the petition. The pair has supportive families and a great legal team. They are keeping busy in prison and trying to be positive. I’m hopeful for them.

Crikey’s Follow Friday series: