Friday, September 23, 2016

It Is and It Isn't

Duchamp: not merely taking the piss
I've an essay with Aeon magazine, written with Graham Priest: "It Is and It Isn't".

We argue that the best way to understand Duchamp's famous readymade 'Fountain" is as a dialetheia: a true contradiction.

A sample:
In 1917 a pivotal event occurred for art and philosophy: Marcel Duchamp unveiled his artwork Fountain in Alfred Stieglitz’s New York studio. This was simply a porcelain urinal, signed ‘R. Mutt’. 
Fountain was notorious, even for avant-garde artists. It has become one of the most discussed works of art of the 20th century. The Society of Independent Artists rejected it, though every artist who paid the exhibition fee was supposed to have their work shown. For almost a century, it has remained a difficult artwork. The philosopher John Passmore summed up Fountain as: ‘a piece of mischief at the expense of the art world’, though many have taken it very seriously. 
No doubt there was some tomfoolery involved – Duchamp did not choose a urinal randomly. Yet there is more to Fountain than nose-thumbing. What makes this artwork so striking is its philosophical contribution. 
Commentators often highlight the influence of Fountain on conceptual art, and this most ‘aggressive’ readymade, as Robert Hughes put it, has certainly had an enduring legacy. In 2004, it was voted the most important 20th-century work by hundreds of art experts. From Andy Warhol to Joseph Beuys to Tracey Emin, this urinal inspired artists to reconsider the traditional artwork. Instead of paintings and sculptures, art was suddenly Brillo boxes, an unmade bed, or a light-bulb plugged into a lemon: ordinary objects, some readymade, removed from their original contexts and placed on display in art galleries. The art critic Roberta Smith sums it up this way: ‘[Duchamp] reduced the creative act to a stunningly rudimentary level: to the single, intellectual, largely random decision to name this or that object or activity “art”.’ As we will see, Duchamp’s choice was not random at all, but Smith’s description points to the broader shock that Duchamp’s work prompted: if this can be art, then anything can. 
Since then, scholars have discussed Fountain to demonstrate a shift away from aesthetics to thought. As the philosopher Noël Carroll notes, it’s possible to enjoy thinking about Duchamp’s work without actually looking at it, which cannot be said for Henri Matisse’s vivid paintings or Barbara Hepworth’s dignified stone sculptures. 
These traditional ideas, as we will see, are all important to Fountain. But they do not go far enough. They treat Fountain as art, but of a mocking sort: a kind of intellectual heckling that nudged artists to taunt and scoff more academically at their own field. Our explanation of the artwork’s power is much more controversial: we believe that Fountain is art only insofar as it is not art. It is what it is not – and this is why it is what it is. In other words, the artwork delivers a true contradiction, what’s called a dialetheia. 
Fountain did not simply usher in conceptual art – it afforded us an unusual and intriguing concept to consider: a work of art that isn’t really a work of art, an everyday object that is not just an everyday object.
(Marcel Duchamp, "Fountain" replica, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, photo by Kim Traynor)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Brisbane Writers Festival 2016

Gestures of bafflement: DY on The Art of Reading (Photo: Dani Taylor)
Last week was the Brisbane Writers Festival, and I hauled myself up north to suffer the indignities of warmth, sunshine, good company and some amazing food.

As always, the hotel offered me an abundance of pillows (not Wi-Fi). I finally figured out what to do with them.
Fort Pillow, Brisbane
My BWF began with the opening night launch on Thursday, which included a fantastic speech from University of Queensland (UQ) Provost Joanne Wright. I skipped the launch speech from US novelist Lionel Shriver to write, but you can read it here. For the record, and contra Shriver, I believe good writing does often 'honour reality', including the experiences of others unlike ourselves. Contra some of her critics, I believe this is a reason to write well (which is shorthand for an enormous moral and aesthetic task), not to shrink from the challenge, or chastise others for even trying.

My first gig on Friday was 'Everyday Philosophy', my workshop. Smaller this year, it involved some excellent discussion -- particularly on cultivating philosophy in the classroom, and the tensions (genuine and dubious) between technology and reflection.

Then 'Writers and their Gardens' with journalist and scholar Margaret Simons, hosted by chef and entrepreneur Brenda Fawdon. It was a relaxed, often-funny conversation, which touched on everything from the philosophy of nature to the ethics of killing and letting-die (baby rats for Margaret, a mouse for me).

Tend to your vines and crush the horror: BF, MS, DY
Saturday morning saw me up early to speak at a UQ alumni breakfast: on my approach to philosophy, and how this relates to my children's books like My Sister is a Superhero.

Comical philosopher, graphic art
Next was my main event, 'The Art of Reading', a conversation with Queensland's State Librarian and CEO of the State Library, Vicki McDonald. Vicki prompted me to reflect on the virtues of reading, the value of literacy, my own literary idiosyncrasies, and (among other fun questions) my favourite word. (I chose 'reverie'.) Some good discussion on the role of librarians and teachers in promoting an lifelong devotion to the written word.

The importance of being earnest: VM, DY
Philosopher in the spotlight (Photo: Dani Taylor)
Finally, I was on a 'New Philosopher' panel on nature, with neuropsychologist Nicola Gates and Margaret Simons, chaired by New Philosopher editor Antonia Case. The session touched on the ambiguity of the word ''nature', the intellectual and psychological value of romantic landscapes and 'green spaces', the threats to healthy ecosystems, and how to value life other than our own.

When I hear the word 'nature' I reach for my...:
AC, NG, DY, MS (Photo: Dani Taylor)
As always, every gig is only an introduction to ideas and personalities; a nudge, a glimpse, a faint scent. As with reading, it's up to the audience to take it further (and sometimes to surpass the 'talent').

Many thanks, once again, to festival director Julie Beveridge and her staff, and all the volunteers (without whom...). Special thanks to Yen-Ron Wong for her contributions.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Melbourne Writers Festival 2016

People in glass houses...should still read well
This week was the Melbourne Writers Festival.

For me, it began with a conversation in the Dumbo Feather caravan, chatting about The Art of Reading and Philosophy in the Garden in their gorgeous mobile cafe. If you get the chance, do drop in.
Caravan of courage conversation
Next was "Why I Read" with actor and author Magda Szubanski, chaired by Antoni Jach. The event, held at Federation Square's light-filled Deakin Edge theatre, was sold out--a nice high-five for readers and reading.

HUNDREDS OF READERS NOT READING (Photo: Text)
We spoke about our childhood reading. I mentioned The Magic Faraway Tree, with its adventure without authority (echoes of philosophy there), maturing into Sherlock Holmes and Batman. The Victorian detective helped me see myself as a reader, the World's Greatest Detective as something hopeless but perhaps beautiful.

"And when I do this, it means I"m Batman..." (Photo: Text)
We touched briefly on the bible (no love there from Magda), the huge worth of libraries and librarians (to rightful applause from the crowd), the moral power of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and so much more.

Antoni chaired the panel deftly with his usual erudition and enthusiasm, and Magda was a charming and generous interlocutor. All in all, a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Thanks, as always, to Lisa Dempster and the MWF gang for their hospitality. Special thanks to the MWF volunteers, who really do make things easier and more relaxed.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Philosophy in the Garden...ing Australia (ABC TV)


Last night I was on Gardening Australia, the long-lived and much-loved ABC TV series. 

I spoke about Philosophy in the Garden, and my own experience of horticultural reverie and speculation. It was filmed in Melbourne's gorgeous Botanic Gardens (including one of my favourites spots: Guilfoyle's Volcano.)

I'm not sure how long the video will remain available, but for now you can watch the show here. It'll be repeated today (Sunday) at 1pm.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Byron Bay Writers Festival 2016

Earlier this month, I tripped off to Byron Bay for the Byron Writers Festival.

It promised a welcome break from Melbourne's wet squalls. And honoured its promise: on the day I arrived. Minutes after my shuttle bus stopped in Byron, I picked up boardshorts and sunglasses, and headed to the gorgeous beach. Then tortured locals and tourists alike with my white glare.

Follow me round perdition's flames: white whale and sea
And then the clouds came: dense, dark, and not sparing their soak. The festival site was damaged by high winds, shredding tents and damaging books. Kudos to the festival staff, who worked tirelessly to keep the events running.

video

Bibliophiles immersing themselves in literature
My first gigs were over the next two days, Primary School Days with over a thousand kids from the region. Illustrator Peter Carnavas and I offered tips on writing and drawing, a fiendish quiz, and a reading of My Sister is a Superhero. Some clever questions from the kids, alongside some outstanding illustrations.

Wednesday night fever: Primary School Days
Five hundred students, two authors, one book: My Sister is a Superhero
First on Thursday was my philosophy workshop, which included a brief lecture, some exercises and discussion. The class discussed Seneca, Nietzsche, alongside poetry and essays--and the relevance of each to everyday life.

On Friday I spoke on the "Writing for Kids" panel with Anna Fienberg and Nick Earls, chaired by the lovely Ashley Hay. We spoke about the ties between reading and writing, the value of reading aloud, and much more. Fascinating to hear about the origins of these hugely popular tales from Anna and Nick.

Grown-up kids, AKA children's authors: Ashley Hay, DY, Anna Fienberg, Nick Earls
Over drinks on Friday night, I received an upgrade to my name-tag from illustrator Tony Flowers.

Werewolves of Byron
The next day began with "Reading: Portal to a Thousand Worlds"--a title taken from Geordie Williamson's review of my The Art of Reading. Geordie chaired the panel, which starred Charlotte Nash, Catherine KeenanJeffrey Renard Allen and me. It was intriguing to hear about the value of reading for each: from Catherine's brilliant work at the Story Factory, to Jeffrey's emancipating escapism.

The (Relatively) Famous Five; Geordie Williamson, Catherine Keenan, Charlotte Nash, DY
Later on Saturday was "The Art of Walking", with Ailsa Piper and John Faulker, again chaired by Ashley Hay. Much of the session was devoted to seemingly foolhardy feats of pedestrian adventure, but we also touched on the psychological and intellectual rewards of walking. At one point, John described me as the maddest person he'd met--high praise from a career politician.

A truly pedestrian panel: John Faulkner, Ailsa Piper, DY, Ashley Hay
Sunday began with the Kids Big Day Out, and I spoke to a huge marquee full of kids, parents and grandparents. A great buzz in that room, and lots of enthusiasm for My Sister is a Superhero, which was heartening.

Not born in a tent, but comfortable in one: The Big Kids Day Out
Finally, my last gig was a panel with Peter Stuchbury and Wendy Whiteley: "Creating Sacred Spaces". I began with a definition of the sacred from my Philosophy in the Garden, though the conversation wandered with a combination of vagueness and reverie. I tried to introduce a little quotidian detail to the chat: the sacred in urban life, rather than just in 'natural' landscapes or high art.

Creating sacred spaces, then filling them with talk: Janet Hawley, Peter Stuchbury, Wendy Whiteley, DY
All in all, a busy and rewarding week away, which included some gobsmacking local food, handsome landscapes and memorable conversation.

A glimpse of the sublime: Byron Bay beach at dusk
Great to meet other authors in various genres, including Nick Falk, Luke Stegemann, Osamah Sami and Rosalyn D'Mello. I'm reading Rosalyn's Handbook For My Lover, an intelligent and fiercely sensual memoir.

Thank you to the very welcoming Byron Bay Writers Festival staff and volunteers, with special thanks to Edwina Johnson, Sarah Ma, Cherrie Sheldrick and Coralie Tapper.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lucky Oedipus


The latest New Philosopher magazine is here, and this is extremely good...

The theme is luck, and the editorial team has put together a fascinating collection of essays, interviews and illustrations.

My essay, 'Lucky Oedipus', uses the ancient Greek myth to reflect on the nature and existential value of luck:
Luck is not just accident, since it does not require intent. Suppose the fight with his father was close, and what gave Oedipus the advantage was a gust of wind that blinded Laius with grit. A lucky win, but not accidental.  
And luck is not simply chance, since rare things are always happening somewhere, at some time. Luck suggests consequence. Perhaps while Oedipus was blinding himself with Jocasta’s brooches, three trees in the Black Forest lost their leaves in spring. Neither lucky nor unlucky for him or anyone else, but certainly an unusual happening. 
So luck is a rare but significant event. It brings together two parts: first, something relatively unusual occurs; second, this something matters. Importantly, luck does not depend on knowledge of it. Oedipus, in a more naturalistic interpretation, had terrible luck well before he realised his woes. And this luck is not absolute. Had Oedipus and Jocasta’s marriage been childless, audiences might have said ‘lucky they didn’t have kids’. Not because their coupling would be redeemed, but because it would be better if died with them. Luck is judged, not simply by what happened, but by what might have happened: its likelihood and desirability. 
In this light, it often makes no sense to call a whole life lucky or unlucky. If someone’s life is predictably sublime or abysmal, then something less exotic is usually going on. The ancients might call it a curse, we might call it socioeconomic class or genetics: the forces that nudge individuals to wealth or poverty, calm or anxiety. ‘None can be called happy,’ says the chorus famously in King Oedipus, ‘until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.’ Mortal life is fragile, yes. There really is chance and happenstance. As tragedy teaches, even the best souls can be cracked by the force of unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances, and we cannot reckon their consequences until the casket is closed. But luck itself is unusual, by definition. 
You can pick up New Philosopher in all good bookshops and newsagents, or subscribe to increase your chances of good literary fortune.


(Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, c. 1805)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Good Reader (Netherlands)


The Dutch translation of The Art of Reading will be published in late November in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Here's an early peek at the cover: a striking blue version of the local edition. They've also changed the title to The Good Reader, which is more faithful to my approach.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Stupid Idiots

'The Orator', Ferdinand Hodler (1912)
I've an essay in the new Island magazine, 'Stupid Idiots'. It's on Australia's political slurs, and how unambitious they are.

I'm suggesting we try harder to insult one another, starting with these two recommendations: 'stupid' and 'idiot'. A sample:
Of all the disappointments falling from the low-hanging piƱata of Australian politics, the most banal are the insults. From the snarling sexism of ‘ditch the witch’—it rhymes, so it must be true and clever—to the clumsy class analysis of ‘spiv’, we are making a graveyard of slurs. Mark Latham offered the occasional zinger-like ‘conga line of suckholes’, but his recent diatribes are less like witty ripostes and more like midnight texts from a jilted lover after major surgery. 
Putting aside the political professionals and pundits, more disillusioning are the average fusillades from social media and casual conversation. Not sad because they are mean (see what I did there?), but because their standards are so low. Wanker, moron, fuckwit, loser – the epithets often express contempt and little else. 
The point is not that contempt is inappropriate – it takes a cruel bastard, for example, to endorse indefinite detention of children – but that it is inarticulate. It turns political debate into a stalemated contest of equally intense and unpersuasive smears. Perhaps this is apt, working well with a democracy that is becoming, as philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis put it, ‘a society of lobbies and hobbies’: competing special interest consortiums, and privative individuals. 
Nonetheless, the misery of things is no mandate for giving up. My humble contribution here is to offer a couple of choice political insults, together with an explanation of their worth. If not for immediate circulation as slights, then at least as a small investment in an ongoing debate between people who are not manic ideologues or venal parasites.
You can pick up Island in all good bookshops, or subscribe here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

'Sorry, I can't' (Meanjin)

Illustration by Lily Mae Martin
I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Four Quarters'.

It's a collaboration with artist Lily Mae Martin, which looks at failure: parental, artistic, bodily, existential.

A sample, from the passages on the body:
‘Shit, do that again.’ The doctor prods my neck bulge, and my arm burns: down my elbow, to my forearm and fingers. Pinky and ring finger tingle. Physiological ventriloquism, and I am dummy and audience. ‘Mr Young, this is serious.’ Possible paralysis, she says. Possible quadriplegia, she says. Days later, the registrar adds more detail: ‘If the disc ruptures completely, the vertebrae will grind against each other.’ Bruised spinal cord. Bruised nerves. ‘You have already lost strength in that hand,’ he says, two fingers squeezed in my palm. 
Strength was familiar: the mass I threw around, in the playground at five, to the judo school at thirty. After my son was born, I took up the martial art at nights, pinning and cartwheeling on three hours’ sleep. My falls were clumsy. When I tell the stories, it seems like an epic throw damaged my spine. But the truth is: it might have been months of forward rolls—or decades hunched over books, like TS Eliot at Lloyd’s Bank, ‘stooping, very like a dark bird in a feeder’. Either way, I will never quite recover. 
But recover what? The easy languor of falling asleep on my back, every limb cushioned. The comforting force of my oldest friend’s arm, hugging my neck. The gentle fit of my baby son to my forearm. (‘Mr Young, don’t lift anything over three kilograms.’ Nikos was 3.65kg at birth.) 
For a while, I cannot type without voice recognition software. I’m writing my debut book. My head perfectly still, I talk at the old laptop, elevated on balsawood IKEA drawers. ‘Alienation’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘ALIENATION’. Violin nation. Delete. ‘FUCKING ALIENATION.’ Truck in violin nation. What the nerve damage begins, the Ibuprofen ends. My mind is slower, more vague. And so is my manuscript.  
It is psychologically neat to say ‘my neck is damaged’. But existentially, things are messier: I am damaged. Parts of my psyche are caring, dutiful, sensitive and exciting—but they are at odds with the parts that are selfish through fear, weak after sleeplessness, anaesthetised by pain, and dull because of drugs. I am not what I was, and certainly not what I hoped to be. 
Eventually I can travel, and I take the bus and tram to the university. A teenager in a purple choker nods her head to Kanye’s “Gold Digger”, and I wince with each thud. The bus bounces over potholes in Richmond, and I do the same. Toward the end of my route, a young mother with a pram stumbles as the tram stops, then rushes to get her baby off onto the platform. There is a drop from the tram’s step to the concrete, and she asks me to help her by taking one end of the pram. 
I say ‘sorry, I can’t’. And I recognise the look of astonished contempt in her tired eyes: this is how I feel about myself.
You can pick up Meanjin online or from bookshops. My advice is to subscribe.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Mininature superheroes (and villains) at All-Star Comics

Quizzing, reading, drawing (the dinosaur didn't bite once)
Yesterday I took My Sister is a Superhero to Melbourne's Eisner award-winning comics shop, All-Star Comics.

They were launching their Kids Club, and the Queen Street shop was packed with tiny heroes and villains. There was face-painting, show-bags and guest writers (including Ned Collett, creator of Fabulous Tree Frog).

I began with a quick quiz ("Does Spiderman wear a cape?"), gave a drawing demonstration, then launched into a reading. The kids drew sketched some fantastic crime-fighting sisters, and yelled "SUPERHERO!" with verve.

A great morning of high geekery.