Thursday, 29 March 2007

Cicero, Mostly

Blimey. That was unexpected. Cicero has triumphantly returned to Rome! How exciting!

Letter 23 (29 November 58)*

if, as I see to be the case on your forecast and my own too, there is NO hope, I beg and adjure you to care for my poor brother Quintus, whom I have ruined, unlucky wretch that I am. Protect my Marcus as far as you can. Poor little boy, I am leaving him nothing but my hated and dishonoured name.

Letter 24 (10 December 58)

I [am] deeply disturbed, because it looks as if even the faint ray of hope that existed has been extinguished.

Letter 25 (mid-December 58):

A letter from Rome, dispatched after you left, has reached me from which I see that I must pine away in this miserable state. And indeed (you won't take this amiss), if there were any lingering hope of my restoration, caring for me as you do you would not have left Rome at this time..

Letter 26 (mid-January 57**)

... if there is opposition I shall avail myself of the Senate's authority and prefer loss of life to that of country.

Letter 27 (early February 57, in its entirety)

From your letters and from the facts themselves I see that I am utterly finished. In matters where my family needs your help I beg you not to fail us in our misery. According to your letter I shall see you soon.

Letter 28 (10 September 57)


Cicero should totally have a blog (like Geoffrey Chaucer, and indeed Pepys.) It's particularly weird reading this kind of epistolatory narrative because mostly I only know about Pompey from Lucan's epic On the Civil War, which is very much about how history can only be written in hindsight, and in which Pompey wears a label on his forehead saying DOOOMED at all times. Hmm. That reminds me, I promised to help draft a proposal for an event on 'the temporalities of reception'. I should probably get on with that.

(A weird thing is that, now that Cicero is back at Rome, his sentences have become notably shorter and more intelligible. KEEP IT UP TULLY.)

*All translations by Shackleton Bailey. (Except one.)

** it's BC, remember, so the numbering goes backwards

Wednesday, 28 March 2007


Had the day off today (mostly - I went to Sean Gaston's seminar paper on Nancy, Aristotle and Derrida, which was beautiful), and while in the Post-Deng Cafe, eating sezchuan eggplant and gazing at photographs of Deng Xiaoping with small children and/or heads of state, I suddenly had two flashes of inspiration about how to manage the bits in Chapter Two that are still eluding me, which I scribbled down there and then. So that's a reminder that Thinking Requires Days Off, which is the most useful thing anyone ever told me when I started my PhD but which is of course one of the first things to go when you're feeling deadlined.

And now I'm back, through the rainy city, via a detour into the spooky, silent, glass-and-steel Law building for a copy of Heidegger's Introduction To Metaphysics (why was it there and not in the Philosophy library? I KNOW NOT), thinking to myself: You really know you're a geek when you hear yourself thinking Oh great! J won't be back for an hour! Time to sit and do some sewing and read more of Cicero's letters!

(Random Cicero thought: When I was being taught Latin, it was always stressed very heavily that the verb in a subordinate clause in indirect speech [a sub-oblique clause] goes into the subjunctive - in fact, that's one of the only Latin grammar rules I remember to this day.* Which has always been odd, because it never comes up in epic, and that's all I really read - but now that I'm reading Cicero I can totally tell why everyone went on about it so much; he does it about every five minutes.)

*the other is the world's least helpful mnemonic, via my dad: From nemo let me never say/ Neminis or nemine.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Day update

Okay, today I mostly sat sadly looking at Chapter Two and thinking about how I am not very good at writing or thinking, and I will never be able to write the book I want to write. But, I just looked at what I did today, and I've actually done quite a lot to transform the draft of Chapter Two - it doesn't look at all like it did when I started, and I have a better idea of the shape of it - so I'm sternly reminding myself that I am getting somewhere.

Also, I'm getting into quite a good routine, where I write in the mornings, taking tai chi breaks every now and again, and then read after lunch. Having a specified time to stop writing works to block some of the head-voices which are trying to make me sit at the computer berating myself for laziness and stupidity until I suddenly write the whole thing in one sudden flash of genius (that's not a strategy that works, I've found).

Also also, I should be congratulated for doing any work at all when the new Diana Wynne Jones novel arrived in the post this morning. I haven't even opened it yet (well, only to read the blurb on the dust-jacket).

And finally also, I figured out who it is I want to write like - it's Tom Cho, of course!

Damnit, though, because I never will. Tom writes sentences like:

But there is something in the way that discussions of popular culture can bring people together and thus our discussion soon leads to Johnny and I having sex.

(from his story 'Dirty Dancing', extract online here)

and, left to myself, I write sentences like:

There was something still about him, as if the rage that had driven him fast and hard through all of last year had gone into the darkness with Sirius and been lost; he looked bony and smudged and watchful.

which, as you'll notice, is basically nothing but adjectives. Oh well. nec vero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt, I guess. (That's from the Georgics; it means something like 'Not every piece of earth can bear every crop'.)


I went away for the weekend, to stay with J's friend Butch J in her house in Kennet River on the Great Ocean Road. Dude, the sea is big. We saw many animals and I had many thoughts about space and technology - coincidentally the subject of my book. Because it's such an intensely mediated landscape. Two examples:

(1) I'd already (always already?) bought a postcard of the Twelve Apostles to send to my parents (hello, by the way, I'm going to send you a postcard soon), and so all the time that I was standing there on the boardwalk with the other tourists I was thinking Ooh, I'm in that postcard!

(2) Conversation with J and Butch J, about the lack of traces of human occupation in the landscape making it possible to imagine what it was like for the white 'settlers':

I: Except, you know, for being in a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled car going at 100km/hr.
J [I forget which one]: But if we weren't in the car, we wouldn't be able to imagine it!

Which was so spot-on, that relationship between imagination and... something like authenticity? Because of course if it had been 1800 and the road - the vantage point from which we look at the landscape in comfort and at a particular speed - hadn't been built yet, we wouldn't be able to look at the landscape and imagine what it would be like to be discovering it, because we'd be too busy hacking our way through gum trees and avoiding deadly spiders and sweating and being rained on and falling down and breaking our legs. You need a certain amount of speed and a certain quality of road to be able to survey the landscape in such a way as to imagine it - have a non-bodily relationship to it. Imaging technology (cameras, imagination, speculative fiction) always opens up the territory first - I read some good essays on that in relation to medicine and the way we understand our bodies, once, but I can't remember where.

And it was a great weekend in lots of other ways; mediated and modern (and uneasily complicit with colonialism) as it was, I loved driving through those landscapes, and getting to see glow-worms at midnight in the middle of nowhere - glow-worms are awesome - and watching birds fight over seed on Butch J's veranda, and looking at koalas and wondering how they balance. And the coast is so huge and so beautiful. And on the way home, after it got dark, we got into a hilarious discussion of butch/femme and their varying styles of EVIL, which ended up with us listening to songs by Mary Gaultier and Connie Francis in alternation, imagining it as one of those hip-hop style contests in song,* with MG in the butch team (I know I hurt you/ But I never meant to.../ You know that I loved you/ You know that I tried/ You know that it hurt me/Each time that you cried)and CF in the femme (Darling, please don't hurt me;/ Please, don't make me cry/ I don't know what I'd do if you'd ever say goodbye/ Remember -- I love you so much,/ And love is life's greatest joy/ Please don't break my heart like a child breaks a little toy). (CF won by miles.)

But what I really want to write about is writing, and I'm worried it's going to turn into one of those blog posts that never actually gets written because it's never the right time to do it perfectly, so I'm just going to get it down here and now. Apologies for some roughness/sketchiness in the thinking and the expression.

I just started David Wills' Prosthesis today - it's absolutely brilliant, by the way, you theory types should all read it - and I was scribbling down notes on the back endpaper** because my mind was firing so fast, it was lovely. This will be but a pale shadow of my excitement, I bet.

Okay, so the reading of this book is hedged about by a bit of anxiety, because it's published in the series I want to approach and because it's by one of the external examiners on the thesis, so reading it, on the level of fantasy, is really reading a judgement on my thesis (Hmm, so David Wills thinks you should write like this... that must mean he thinks my thesis should be more like that!) So it's making me think about the stylistic choices that I'm making in writing the book-of-the-thesis, and how they relate to the choices Wills has made. Because as well as being an incredibly clever book, this is an intensely, intensely poetic book. And it's in the poetry that the thinking happens and is performed. And one of the criticisms that my internal examiner made of the thesis was - sort of - that it wasn't poetic enough: that it defended itself against the more interesting, wilder, consequences of its thinking by miming or feigning obedience to academic protocols (quoting 'authorities' to justify particular moves, in particular).

So I've been having to think about the value and importance of that poetic mode of writing (theory). When I say 'poetic', what I mean is something which strives not to repress any of the effects of the language - the opposite of the way that 'scientific' discourse tries to be 'transparent', ie not to let any of the non-referential effects of language affect the way that the writing signifies. But in poetry, everything (potentially) is significant: the sound of the words, their metaphorical dimension, their relationship to other poems. And also, poetry is from the Greek word for 'making' - so poetic discourse makes and/or is made, it's an artifact, a thing, not just a 'representation' of a real thing that remains 'outside' the writing. And some theoretical writing tries to work like that, and it's important to me that mine should, too. But my writing looks and feels very different from David Mills, even when it works: my ur-sentence, the one which will not appear in the book and didn't appear in the thesis but has exactly the effect - the tone, the style, the feel, the something - I want to get is:

Aeneas loves Dido because she is a bee.

See? Nearly monosyllabic, nice and Anglo-Saxon, not overly Latinized, short, easy to read, and with a sort of deadpan indecision over whether that 'is' is metaphorical or not. I love that sentence.

But David Wills writes sentences like this:

From earthbound gallop to quadrupedantic flight, from leg of flesh to leg of steel, it is necessarily a transfer into otherness, articulated through the radical alterity of ablation as loss of integrity.

So, given the aforementioned anxiety coupled with my huge admiration and respect for what Wills is doing, I've been having to think about what I mean by poetic, and why he's written the book the way he's written it, and whether if I want to be considered in anything like the same breath as him as a deconstructive scholar, I need to start writing more like him. Because I absolutely agree with his (and others') critique of 'plain speaking', of a kind of writing that poses as 'easy' and 'clear' and so on.

Because that kind of writing - that construction of a medium of communication between author and reader - often rests on a kind of 'common sense', which means that in order to experience the writing as simple and clear and legible, the reader has to sign up to a certain set of assumptions about language, about culture, and about the world. And those assumptions inevitably repress a good deal of the signifying dimensions of the writing, which is methodologically problematic when what you're writing is a reading of texts which aims to restore those very dimensions.

But there's more to it than that slightly arcane methodological concern, I think. Because some of the assumptions that make texts 'clear' are politically or culturally dodgy. I've noticed this mostly from a queer perspective, when I point out that certain texts or images only make sense if you assume that, say, 'female' and 'attracted only to men' are synonymous, and sometimes people get very impatient with me about that, as if I should be expected to do the work of translation which actually excludes my whole existence and the only reason I'm not doing it is to be difficult. I can't think of a good example here, but here's a not-very-clear one instead, which might be more appropriate anyway.

Like it's 'clear' that the mixed-sex love story in Singin' In The Rain (Don/Cathy) is 'really' in the text, and the same-sex love story (Don/Cosmo) is only in the subtext/the eye of the reader/ etc - because Don & Cathy end up together, and no accommodation is made in the plot (as series of events linked by cause-and-effect) for the end or renegotiation of Don's and Cosmo's relationship. But that doesn't necessarily make it 'clear' that all the intimations in the text of a loving relationship between Don and Cosmo just don't exist: the purely-heterosexual reading of the film is a product of interpretation just like any other reading of the three-way relations between the protagonists. It's just that the film, and the institutions of reception according to which we read it, work to efface the work we have to put in to see how 'obvious' it is that there's no sexual or romantic element in the relationship between Don and Cosmo, as there is between Don and Cathy. (Just like it makes people impatient sometimes when I point out that seeing 'female' and 'attracted only to men' as synonymous actually requires me to do a fair bit of work - it's not 'just true', or 'obvious', or 'natural', or 'right').

John Mowitt, in Text - another book which is made of awesome - talks about how, when we write, we should struggle to make what we write 'piratable' by people yet to come, whose struggles may be unrecognizable to us. And that struck such a chord, because... Okay, this is a principle that's been guiding me, in my writing. I write things down, and I ask if they're 'true'. That works well enough to produce statements which I'm happy to publish and stand by, but I've never really managed to work out what I meant by 'true'. But now that I've read Text I think Mowitt's idea of 'piratability' is pretty close to it. In fact, I think 'piratability' is the answer to a question that was posed at a debate I took part in at Bristol about a year ago: if you work in the humanities - particularly if you engage with history - but don't subscribe to 'realism', to the idea that things 'really' happened and are later represented in history - then how do you make sure your work is ethical, is not simply serving your own interests, reflecting your own position, your own self, back to you? 'Piratability' seems to answer that question to me - it's also made me a lot more kindly-inclined towards scientific discourse, which is absolutely trying to be piratable, to produce statements which will be true - which will work - regardless of a reader's cultural and historical position.

All of which means that being in Australia - the disorienting, dislocating experience of being in this landscape, which is so strange to me in terms of all the natural and cultural forces which shape it (the climate, the way the land, the sea and the sky fit together, the plants and animals, the recentness of white/European forms of settlement, the practices and technologies which mediate and have mediated, in the last couple of thousand years, between human societies and their terrestrial environment) - is actually incredibly good for this book. Because the book's about the relationship between sense-making practices and the political/territorial landscape of the Roman Empire (ie, roughly, Europe). And Australia is so visibly*** and constantly different from Europe that writing the book here reminds me that I need to work, all the time, to make it piratable by non-Europeans, not to opt for a mode of writing which is 'clear' at the cost of requiring the reader to fill in gaps with specifically European knowledges or traditions. That is, if I say something about 'the land' or 'the earth', or about 'human society' being constituted by agriculture, then I need to make damn sure I specify where and to whom 'human society' is defined as being constituted by agriculture. Because otherwise I'm saying that I don't care if I exclude certain societies from humanity. Which is about as unethical as you can get.

And - to get back to David Wills - it's that kind of truth-as-piratability that it seems to me Wills is getting at everywhere in his book: it's that specificity that, in the end, makes his writing 'piratable', because he's not using universalizing synechdoches which name the part after the whole ('men' and 'women', 'humans', 'society', 'the earth'), but always specifying what he means. And part of that process of specifying is in the poetic quality of the words: because poetry says that there are no synonyms, that it matters whether you say 'meadow' or 'field' or 'paddock' or 'greensward'.

So - that was my long meditation on why poetry is an indispensible part of the task of theory, but also that was how I figured out for myself why I can do poetry in a different way from Wills, as long as I keep the ethical aim in view.

And this question of poetry and piratability is related to the other thing I was thinking about, which is that writing is a place to find your own limits - to think, experience, and 'do' things that aren't open to you in your socially-constrained, embodied life. That's not a new thought, I know - I'm thinking of Toni Morrison's amazing Playing in the Dark, where she writes about the ways in which writing fiction relates you to other ways of being through the creation and inhabiting of characters, or Calvin Thomas's hilariously deadpan exposition of Cixous' 'writing is the passage of the other in me' via anal sex in 'Must Desire Be Taken Literally?' - but it's usually talked about in terms of identification (as in Morrison) or transgression (think of Dennis Cooper or George Bataille or anyone). And that's not quite what I'm talking about, though it's not completely unrelated: but I think that identifying with characters, either in reading or writing them - although it is very powerful and uncanny and interesting - is only part of the way that writing always exceeds the limits of the writing self. What makes me calm and happy about writing - when it works - is that sense of writing things that are true; that sense of having got past a particular configuration of cultural forces which tries to repress half the potential meanings in texts, and accounted for something which goes beyond or outside the everyday, commonsensical appearance of things, while not contradicting or dismissing the everyday either. And that's something to do with the way language works, I think: something to do with the materiality of writing, as a way of working with language as material: the way that language, and the social, cultural and historical forces that shape it, put up a specific resistance to certain ways of using language, and writing comes out of negotiating that resistance. Just like sculpting, which relies on the material putting up a specific kind of resistance to the precise degree of muscular force applied to the specific tool that the sculptor's using, and so you chip off exactly this little bit of this particular stone until you have the shape you wanted, insofar as the stone will hold that shape. It's a collaboration between the sculptor and the material. And writing is like that too.

Finally, my title and abstract for the paper I'm giving on the 18th are now up.

*I'm not hip enough to even know what those are called. I'm not even hip enough to know what to Google to find out. Isn't there one in Eight [Eighth?] Mile?

**in pencil, Gemma! In pencil!

***And audible: every night at dusk, the cicadas start shrieking, and at first I kept having to go outside to see if someone's alarm was going off. It's a horrific noise: loud and electronic and grating, a cross between an alarm and that screeching noise that water pipes sometimes make. (I googled cicadas and some of them can make a noise up to 120 dB which, I'm told, is close to the pain threshold of the human ear.)

Friday, 23 March 2007


So I bought this book about the relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger because it was on sale in Readings, and it turns out to be just like trashy celebrity gossip for academics, with a bit of Gothic romance thrown in:

The adult Arendt, the preeminent scholar, would indeed appear to the world self-confident, even imperious. But never would she appear so to Heidegger.

The first-year student found in Heidegger a lover, friend, teacher, and protector. He promised to love her forever, to help and guide her. Carried away by his seductive declarations, she let down her defenses as never before...

When they met, the thirty-five-year-old Heidegger, married and the father of two young sons, was finishing the manuscript of
Being and Time, a book that would put him in the ranks of the most prominent philosophers of the twentieth century. From their correspondence it is clear that he fell in love with his young student from their earliest meetings in his classroom. And though his passion subsided as time went on, his need to be her idol did not. Until he met Hannah, Heidegger - strict, rigid, hard-working, the son of devout Catholic peasants - seems to have known little of genuine passion, of a physical and spiritual bond. It is clear from Heidegger's letters to Arendt that she showed him how to love ardently and not feel it a sin. He needed her in order to breathe fully and deeply, to enjoy being alive.

(Elzbieta Ettinger, Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger [Yale University Press, 1995], p.3)

In other news, Cicero has now left Thessalonica. He was going to go to Epirus, but Plancius wouldn't let him (honest), so now he's at Dyrrachium, where the people are very keen on him. He is no longer so much talking about how nothing this bad has ever happened to anyone in the history of the world before, but has instead started saying things like You could have saved me from all this, Atticus - but no, no, I'm not blaming you, it's all my fault for thinking that you loved me as much as I wanted you to. Trust is such a terrible burden to place on a man ::looks sad::.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Day of Calmness

Yesterday I went to the Baillieu library to take out another pile of hard books. (You may be able to deduce from the titles - The Gods In Epic, The Textualization of Nature, Acts of Religion, Materialities of Communication - that I am going off on a tangent about Roman religion as a communications network which, er, textualizes nature. I'm quite excited about this, as I think it solves a few of the problems in the thesis's structure.) Then I got myself booked in to give a paper at the School of Cultural Studies research seminar, and then went along to Anthony White's paper to see what the gig would be like; I was immediately very glad that I'd signed up for it. The paper itself was interesting and well-theorized; attendance was pretty good (about 15 people, which isn't bad for a departmental seminar); and the feedback was awesome: coming from diverse places, but all very thinky and erudite and generous.* And the theoretical points of reference people are using are fairly familiar to me. So this is going to be a great place to try out stuff from the book, I think.

The day before yesterday I shoved Chapter One roughly into place. This isn't usually the way I work - the structure of a paper usually evolves for me out of slow, sentence-by-sentence, thoughtful and immersed work - but I think that's because I'm working on a larger scale now (not to mention because I'm rewriting), so I have to have a framework in place before I do the detailed stuff. It's also because it's a longer project in terms of time as well as word count, and I'm interleaving writing with reading - so I don't want to have either the thinking or the phrasing buffed to a high shine of completion while I'm still reading. Because what if something in one of the piles of hard books makes me rethink everything? So this more rough-hewn way of working feels like a better process for the moment.

Before that I had a bit of a rough time for a few days - hit an emotional bump in the road or something. So today I celebrated feeling better about myself and my book by, er, slacking off: I worked out a rough structure for Chapter 2 and made some notes about the overall aim of the chapter, then curled up in the comfy chair and read through the fan story I'm working on at the moment. I'm happy to report that it is awesome, containing drawling, robe-swirling, and politics.

Otherwise, life keeps chugging along. I started a tai chi class a couple of days ago, and instantly felt about five times better (memo to self: YOU HAVE A BODY); we finally filed J's visa application (behold! could anyone who had not lived in a relationship akin to marriage for two years have amassed this many documents? ) the other day; I've bought a present for my nephew's upcoming third birthday, and now I just have to post it; and I continue to sew obsessively.

*Melbourne Uni seems in general like a generous place. I say this based on (i) going to this paper and (ii) going to the loo in the Baillieu Library, to discover a whole wall full of touching and supportive graffiti; one person had written 'Help! I like a girl but I don't know what to do with girl bits!' and one person had written 'My heart is broken and it hurts so much'. And both those comments had drawn multiple, lengthy, helpful responses. Not one person was mean or rude or sarcastic. Truly it is a utopian toilet. (Except of course that the loos are gender-segregated, so the conditions of entrance to utopia are that you submit to compulsory binary gender: this is more usual for utopias than it should be, alas.)

Friday, 16 March 2007

Photo post

I actually had some insights into the writing process today, but they're going to have to wait till I can do a more thoughtful post. So instead, you get photos!

Here's what my desk looked like today. Notice how it is gradually silting up. The tower 'o' books to the left of the computer is Lucan on Livy on Vergil: it's like a sculpture of the canon! But that's how I like to work. Sara Ryan once talked about how it's hard to do the labour of writing when you have too many other things going on in your life, and how she'd heard a great metaphor for it: like an Internet browser with 'too many tabs open'. Having a clutter of open books on the desk, for me, is like having lots of tabs open in a good way - it's a spatial analogue for the connections I'm making in my mind. It feels like I can entrust some of the work to that clutter, and not have to be conscious of everything all the time. It's a writing-prosthesis!

On the little plinthy-thing on the desk is a tray J brought me, containing lunch (avocado/cottage-cheese sandwich) and a cupcake from Dench's. J (and cupcakes) is also part of the highly-oiled machinery that keeps this production line going, as you can see.

I was also amused today to notice that, although we're only here for four months and are trying not to buy food items that will outlast our stay, we have both red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar. So I took a photo of our shelves, to show you the full bourgeoisity of our priorities:

Top shelf (olive oil, sesame oil, 12-year-old whiskey... What?)

Middle shelf (ketchup, sugar, Maldon-brand flaky sea salt... What?)

Bottom shelf (now this one is more normal: Vegemite, honey, peanut butter.)

Today I refused to write any words - in a sort of weird, mute, visceral way, like a horse refusing a jump - and ended up sitting on the sofa sewing and reading Cicero's letters to Atticus (Book III. He's in Thessalonica. He hates Thessalonica! No-one understands him! He's totally leaving! He's going to go to Asia! Oh, wait, he's still in Thessalonica). This is my current project. I've been working on it for about three or four days now (can you tell what it is yet?* (This is a finished one: I started it on the plane out, so I guess it took three or four weeks.)

Sometimes I do leave the house, honestly. I go to Federation Square (though not very often, really), home of art galleries and, um, stuff. There's an old-fashioned tram going past in that picture, but usually I get the more modern-looking ones. [Thanks for Tom Cho for the tramtactic link.] More often I go to Brunetti (and here's a close-up of that gorgeous architecture: see the tiny cupids!).

Sometimes I see cool stuff (as J pointed out, I can see where waxing and teeth-whitening might be frowned upon, but really many of us have hair and nails, so the judgement seems a bit harsh...)

*Ans: It is a mediaeval lady at a loom. That is the left-hand foot of the loom, and the frill on her dress.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Plot We've Got, Quite A Lot

Okay, we're into the Quest Narrative bit of the writing process now - ie, I spent yesterday Struggling with Obstacles but today managed to Overcome them. I like it when my life has a plot.

So, yesterday was a bad day (soundtrack provided by R.E.M.). The morning got eaten by various life-admin things - we're fighting with J's estate agents to get some repair work done to damage the previous tenants did to the house, and she's finding it particularly stressful, because it destroys any possibility of her getting into the deep-trance state in which she does her writing. So after we spent a few hours dealing with the agents, we went out for a walk to come down from the adrenaline, and looked at the gorgeous jewellery in Pieces of Eight (look at these awesome pieces by Craig Spark), then had lunch at the Tin Pot, then went home to work.

Now here's a weird, stupid thing. I really enjoy (and am pretty good at) being J's life-coach: telling her sternly when she's not in a fit state to work, explaining to her at great length that being a writer is like being a factory owner as well as a factory worker, and sometimes you have to do maintenance work to the machinery to make it work properly, so it's counterproductive to sit down in front of the computer and force yourself to write words if your writing apparatus isn't working right - and since writing comes from your brain and your feelings and your body all at once, that means you have to factor a fair amount of working-on-yourself into your working time.

But for some reason I'm stubbornly convinced that none of that applies to me, and that the only possible reason for me not sitting straight down and producing a smooth flow of brilliant, erudite and lucid prose is because I'm a bad person. So I spent quite a lot of time yesterday sitting at the computer feeling inadequate. But I found quite a good solution to it, I think: I opened a new document and forbade myself from deleting anything and just wrote down everything I was thinking about, and it was partly embarrassingly emo and partly quite productive. The best thing I figured out is that starting is hard: I've been spending a very long time writing things and looking at them and going But that's not true! and deleting them again. And it's hard to work out whether that's just because I'm nervous about starting, or because I'm actually doing good work thinking about how I want to position this book - one of J's friends says that the first line, page, chapter of a book teaches the reader how to read it, so a lot of decision-making about genre, tone, style, and information has to go into those early parts.

So that was probably okay work, but I was still miserable at the end of the day, so I cooked, which was cheering. (The other hard thing about starting is that I try really hard to become disembodied when I'm starting a project, it turns out, which means that I really hate eating anything not made of beige carbohydrates and want to live on Diet Coke, crisps, doughnuts, pasta, and bagels; also, I don't move around, and the keyboard I ordered off ebay doesn't work, so I'm typing straight onto my laptop, which is wicked bad for you, apparently. But! I had coffee/food with A on Tuesday and we're going to try and find a tai chi class together, so that'll help, I think, though at the moment I'm still just feeling nothing but resentful that I have to have a body.)

But then today, after a couple of hours on the estate-agent thing, we did a ritual to clean the house of bad vibes, and I sat straight down and wrote 3000 words by dint of (a) turning the Internet off and not 'just checking my email' before I started and (b), um, changing the font I was working in, from the serious and grown-up Gill Sans to the more casual and 'this-is-just-a-first-draft'-feeling Handwriting Dakota (here's the quote I'm working on in the first chapter in that font: it's from Michel Serres' awesome book Rome: The Book of Foundations).

Oh! And I figured out what I'd done wrong with gender in the dissertation: I talked as if gender was prior to/ outside the organization of political space. As if people were men or women (which is bad enough) before they entered political space. So that's embarrassing.

Okay, I have to go now, I'm going to dinner with J at Shakahari's to celebrate being here, and being at work, and everything. Yayy!

Monday, 12 March 2007

What Was This Thing Supposed To Be About, Again?

On Friday, I was going to try jumping straight into Chapter 1, but it didn't work, so I mostly spent the day speed-rereading my dissertation in order to try and figure out what the shape of the whole book is going to be. Then I had the weekend off - I saw Nix for a late breakfast on Sunday, which was fun for about a million reasons, including the beginning of what I suspect will be an ongoing discussion about butch/femme. Then J and I walked up and down Brunswick Street looking in the shops; I saw millions of good, not-too-gendered baby clothes (researching for the upcoming birthdays of my nephew and my future niece) saying things like Genius and Bad Girls Rock, and I bought a jumper for myself which I'm very enamoured of. We also watched Strange Bedfellows, which is (rather surprisingly) one of the best queer films I've seen in years, as part of my ongoing Australian acculturation project.

Then today I tried to start Chapter One, but probably the best I can say is that I sat at my computer for several hours trying out sentences and sitting quietly with the project, and wrote down a few thoughts about the main ideas in the book. I did make a start at something which might turn into Chapter One, and I didn't give up too easily, but I didn't really produce any countable words. Maybe later this week - tomorrow I'm going to the library to get hold of some of the more urgent texts I couldn't afford to mail to myself.

One thing I've noticed is that I'm very wrapped up in this project by now, which means it's harder to talk about, because my thoughts are very involved and thus hard to explain clearly, but at the same time I am prone to getting tense and upset if people take what I'm talking about in a different direction from the one I meant. So I'm treading warily. But my head is full of thoughts about the book a lot of the time now. This is fun when it involves listening to Laurie Anderson on earphones while doing the washing up and going far away inside my head on long cogitations about how 'Big Science' is all about Heidegger (I have now forgotten why, I'm afraid); it's not so fun when it involves lying awake at night trying to decide whether I really need to discuss the stabbing of women as a foundational practice.

That's actually kind of the big question for me at the moment, but I think I can put off answering it for a while longer, while I get the opening of the book into shape. The dissertation/book is about the articulation of textual space and political space: what kind of space do you need in order to read signs? what kind of space do you need in order to form a lasting organization of humans? And both of those gradually get transformed into a question about the kind of space that you need in order to store, retrieve, and transmit information. Because the way we conceive information transmission determines the ways we can conceive both of political space and of historical time. (An example from television: Kevin Costner's The Postman is about the idea that the nation is basically a huge apparatus for sending and receiving information - like, territory + postal system = nation.)

In the original dissertation, one of the ways I talk about political space is through this recurring theme in Roman literature (and later nationalist writing), the idea that the State's territory is like a female body - and this metaphor is used to bundle together a lot of ideas about how the national landscape is beautiful, organically unified, penetrable, fragile, in need of protection, and so on. But it's not always a metaphor - there are also lots of stories in Livy about how the state boundary gets drawn and redrawn when the people mobilize for war because of threats to, or violence against, real-life women. (Lots of stabbing.) And in the story of Dido and Aeneas, Dido completely manipulates that set of metaphors and stories in order to set up the political situation she wants - but she's the enemy of Rome, and when Aeneas actually gets to Italy, we return to this situation where women are simultaneously the cause of war and the metaphors for national territory (he's destined to marry this really nothingy wife, Lavinia, whose name mostly appears in the epic as an adjective describing the territory he's going to rule once he wins the war). And then, in the original dissertation, that whole strand led up to a conclusion about the ways in which that way of conceptualizing political space (and gender) could be resisted. It was kind of neat, and tied a lot of the strands of the dissertation together, but I'm wondering whether I should just junk the focus on 'femaleness' altogether: it's beginning to feel like a bit of a cheat, a way of making the dissertation look like it ends, even though a lot of the ideas in it aren't really resolved. Like gender encompasses all the other spatial and temporal problems in the book, when really it's only part of all of that, and not a very major part, either.

I think this would be okay, as I'm publishing articles on the two main female figures in the dissertation (Dido and Gradiva) elsewhere anyway. But of course, that means I have to figure out a new structure for the book - and (eek!) I have to resolve all those things I fudged slightly, like the difference between visual and aural space, and the difference between a plough and an angel's wings.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Daily update

Today I menstruated and did not write any words.* But I did a bunch of other work-related stuff, and took a pleasant walk over to the Paragon Cafe (the images don't show the lovely angels on the walls) to do some reading there, so I don't feel too bad.

Also, it occurred to me that I forgot to post a picture of one of the most important elements in my working space/routine: my lucky tshirt! (Which I wasn't wearing today: possibly this was a contributing factor in my failure to write words, but the tshirt is getting a bit tatty already and has to be kept for emergencies only...)

And the final thing that happened today was that I discovered that the bottle shop*** opposite the Paragon sells Whitstable Bay ale,**** which is (a) delicious and (b) evocative for me, as I grew up about five miles from Whitstable. This is extra good news because the bottle-shop opposite Flinders Street Station where I used to get English beer has been taken over (by a McCafe, just to add insult to injury), and I wasn't sure where or even whether I was going to have any beer to drink for the next four months. It's hard to get English-style beer in Australia, especially as there are beers here called 'bitter' and 'pale ale', but they are all, in fact, varieties of lager (a word which doesn't seem to be in use here), so I can't even name what it is I want ('No! Not Victoria Bitter! Bitter! No! Not Carlton Pale Ale! India Pale Ale!'). Not that I'm going to complain too much, since there is, of course, plentiful, delicious, and often really quite cheap wine all over the place (lots of bars and restaurants sell nice wine by the glass, something which rarely happens in the UK).

*Oddly enough, there was originally going to be a chapter in my PhD about menstruation-as-inscription, but it didn't really come to anything, though in my early researches I did discover from Pliny's inimitable Natural History that if you wanted to cure your fields of a certain blight you should get a naked, menstruating virgin to walk round them. But then, as Amy Richlin pointed out in her essay 'Pliny's Brassiere', Pliny wrote much of the Natural History with his wife's bra** on his head, which can't fail to undermine his credibility with the modern reader.

**Technically 'breast-band', I think - I don't have the book to hand, so I can't look up the Latin word. The essay is in Roman Sexualities, ed. Hallett & Skinner, for them as are interested, though.

***'bottle-shop' = 'off-licence'.

****Huh. I didn't know they got the hops from New Zealand. So it's organic, but drinking it in Australia means I am actually consuming the maximum food miles possible for someone not currently on a space station: if they're shipping the hops from New Zealand to the UK to brew the beer, then shipping the beer to Australia, this beer has basically circumnavigated the globe.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007


Wrote 811 words, then got scared of the introduction and had to turn the computer off in case it bit me (or something). Made J read the introduction to check whether it was any good at all or whether (AS I RATHER SUSPECTED) I should junk the whole thing as hubristic nonsense. She says it is jolly good and only needs a bit of tweaking.

So it looks like I have to admit that I have, in fact, started my book, and am not just messing around with ideas on the screen. Eek. This makes me feel a bit hyperventilaty, and also (oddly) in great need of a green apple, so I am going to the supermarket. On my return, I will cook.

(Still reading Elden's spatial history book, which is now talking about Heidegger's love of the rural, and giving me fun ideas about junking the distinction between rural and urban space - or at least removing the conditions for 'rural nostalgia', something Heidegger totally has and so does Paul Virilio, which is a shame - he does this awesome analysis of the space/time of global sovereignty as mediated/produced by real-time technologies like email and telephony, but then his response to the problem does tend to be so we should all go BACK IN TIME and live in VILLAGES, which is perhaps not ideal for - among other people - the urban queer women among his readership.)

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Photos of the workspace

As promised yesterday, some photos of the room I'm working in.

Here's my desk. The book you can see is I See A Voice, by Jonathan Ree, which is sort of interesting but written in a very annoying tone of voice - it's another heartening one, though, in that it complains a bit about some of the gaps in theory which my book is going to address. The CD is either Laurie Anderson's Big Science ('O Superman' is the book's theme song) or David Bowie's Heroes, both of which I bought from a cheap CD shop at the weekend, after having lunch with J's brother and his gf.

My desk opens onto two spaces - the space outside, via a window, and the space inside my computer. Here's the wallpaper on my computer at the moment - it's the view from my kitchen window in Bristol. I was writing today in the introduction about the weird way that the hyperlink between spaces that the internet creates just doesn't translate at all into travelling - how email makes promises of immediacy that just fall down when you're on a 24-hour flight - so it's nice to have that juxtaposition of virtual-Bristol and real-Melbourne there.

Here's the second workspace in the room - the comfiest chair ever, which I got from the Brotherhood. It's brown and well-loved, like a teddy bear, and on it there's a beautifully soft cotton comfort blanket which I bought on sale from the bijou houseware shop round the corner from J's house. I snuggle into the chair and under the blanket to read hard books (these are books I haven't yet read, and really have to, for the writing; here is where they live, on the table next to the comfy chair. You can also see on the table my current reading-book, Skating the Edge by Julia Lawrinson, which probably shouldn't live so close to the comfy chair, because when I'm trying to read about Heidegger it's a bit tempting to have a novel about four girls in an adolescent psychiatric unit near at hand. Also there is a volume of feminist cartoons, and a Diet Coke can - this room hasn't yet filled up with Diet Coke cans to the extent that my office in Bristol does, but I suspect it's only a matter of time.)

Above the comfy chair are these very groovy posters about needlework, from a 70s exhibition about reclaiming women's art/craft. This is because I sew obsessively when I'm busy or stressed (am currently about five-sixths of the way through a peacock-feather design I started on the plane on the way out). I also have a big print of Edward Burne-Jones's The Beguiling of Merlin, which makes a guest appearance in a fan story I'm currently (not) writing, and these lucky fish, which J bought for me in Chinatown in Sydney at Chinese New Year, because my name means 'fish' in several Pacific languages (and 'squid' in Japanese - there was Ika Salad on the menu at a restaurant we went to on our first night here). The walls also feature this massive crack - there's a drought on, and according to J when there's a drought the trees drink all the water out of the ground and shift the foundations, breaking the houses. This gives me a very interconnected Gaia-type feeling, like what is this 'tree'? what is this 'house'? it is all about the FLOWS of water and the divisions between bodies are arbitrary. It also scares me rather, or it did, but I'm used to it now.

Monday, 5 March 2007

First Day of Writing

I've always wanted to keep quite a detailed journal of a writing project. The trouble is that I never start wanting to until I'm well into the project, have forgotten what I was thinking when I started, and am wishing I'd kept a journal from the start. But right now I have a well-defined writing project to do in a well-defined period of time (turn my doctoral dissertation into a book by the time I leave Melbourne in mid-June), so I'm planning to use this blog as a writing journal. That means that I'll be blogging about the ideas that I'm writing about, but also about the writing process and about my life here in general - the last bit partly to keep in touch with people at home (hi Mum!) without having to send endless circular emails, and partly to see how my writing and my life fit together, because of course writing is something done by people with bodies - and living with a woman who's been a freelance writer for 30-odd years is a great way to learn about how much maintenance a full-time writing body needs. (Memo to self: find tai chi class in Melbourne: the current regime [Diet Coke, sugar] is not sustainable.)

So I've been in Australia for nearly three weeks now. The first three days were spent staggering around getting all my girlfriend's stuff out of storage and buying second-hand furniture from the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence (one of the most popular Australian charity-shop ['op shop'] outfits, usually referred to as 'The Brotherhood', which sounds faintly Mafiaesque and exciting). Then we got the twelve-hour train to Sydney, through a blasted, drought-ridden landscape with occasional small towns with names like The Rock or Wagga Wagga, which was very iconic but not very good for the legs: and I spent the next week at two conferences, Queer Space and Queer Asian Sites, neither of which set my world on fire overall (as Nix Williams points out, they, um, weren't really terribly queer). Luckily, though, the two main exceptions were people I'm going to see more of now that I've taken up my Visiting Fellowship at Melbourne University: Aren's paper was as exciting as I'd expected (Az, remind me to talk to you about Hannah Arendt and homo faber), and another guy from the Cultural Studies dept. gave an awesome paper on gay globality which engaged with a theorist called Paul Virilio, who I'm using in my book. So I'm looking forward to seeing more of their work in the next few months.

We got back from Sydney last Monday, and spent last week mostly on setting up the house and settling in: some of you got emails tersely giving a phone number and saying that we now have internet access at home. This left untold a long (long, long) story about how Bigpond do in fact have a specialist Mac technical support team, but the only way to get through to them is to hold for 40 minutes to get put through to PC tech support. Then - after they figure out that you have a Mac, not because you told them so in the first sentence of the phone call (though you did), but because five minutes into the conversation they manage to establish that, no, you're not running Windows XP - PC tech support put you on hold for 20 minutes to talk to Mac tech support. Who then are flabbergasted to discover that the new MacBooks don't have an ethernet port (HOW 2006), and explain that Bigpond broadband doesn't support a USB connection to Macs and it will probably be impossible to get onto the internet at all. You could, they concede, try ringing Apple.

So I did. And they sorted the whole thing out in ten minutes flat. I heart Apple.

Anyway, so last week was full of things like that, plus a few visits to the Cultural Studies department at the University of Melbourne to find my way around and meet some of the staff. But we're now properly settled in J's house, which is in a splendidly bijou inner suburb of Melbourne: well-spelt, left-wing, poetical graffiti; supermarket stocking seven varieties of hoummus (all spelt differently); two different bakeries stocking things like pear-and-ginger cake, potato-and-rosemary bread and brioche loaves; ubiquitous flyers for socialist events (but, puzzlingly, I haven't seen a tai chi class advertised yet, and may have to resort to the little-known related internal Daoist martial art being advertised as 'Swimming Dragon'). The weather has, thankfully, calmed the fuck down from the savage 38-degree-heat with accompanying savage insects which greeted us (all wobbly and new from Bristol snow), and I have adjusted to the fact that everything in this country is just slightly bigger than in England. Like, bottled water is 600ml not 500ml, and cans of Diet Coke are 375ml not 330ml, and the cars all seem to have been scaled up by about the same proportions. It's like one of those stories where people break into someone's apartment and move everything an inch to the left, to mess with the apartment-dweller's heads. (Also, Philadelphia in this country is in round tubs, not rectangular ones, and lemons grow on trees rather than on Astroturf in greengrocers. But I soldier on.)

So today was the first day of writing - I was planning to spend the week reading and contemplating, but last night I realized that I now have three months to turn this dissertation into a book and I don't really know how to do it. I mean, I know in general - I need to restructure it slightly, and I need to make the whole thing a bit less anxious and well-defended, and I want to make the prose simpler and the ideas wilder (which also means more rigorous, because they won't be clinging quite so anxiously to previous thinkers' phrasing and arguments, so I'll have to think them through more carefully). But I don't know in practice how that translates into, well, what I actually do in the day for the next three months. So it felt like spending a week reading and thinking would just make me even more anxious and lost-feeling, and I should just start writing, to locate myself in the project, rather than trying to map it out in advance: and it's sort of worked, I think.

I decided to start writing the Introduction from scratch, without looking at any previous versions (because, again, then I get anxious about having to live up to what I've said before, or do it justice, or something). So I turned off my internet connection and just started trying to explain what I think the book is about, and why I want to write it and why people should read it: and it was awesome. All of a sudden I felt very calm-and-excited, at the same time, and I could feel the whole project stretching out around me, more than I could write at once, but it settled down quite obediently into actual words in an actual order, which isn't always the case. And I did a nice mixture of detailed work - sitting with phrases or words or ideas and figuring out what they meant and why they mattered - and larger-scale stuff, blocking out the structure and direction of the introduction, and explaining how all the different ideas of the book relate to each other, and exactly how the Roman stuff relates to the context in which I wrote it. Which is the thing I've had the hardest time explaining to people. The attack on the World Trade Centre came when I was about one year into my PhD (which took four years overall), and I remember that it made me rethink what I was doing and why - but in the end I decided that thinking about the Roman civil war was still important, that something about my work was in dialogue, in some real way, with the WTC attack and the 'war on terrorism'. And I've never been able to explain exactly how that works, without sounding either 'naively presentist' (it's the context in which I'm working so it determines everything I'm doing anyway), or like I'm trying to legitimate my work through a loose and self-serving definition of politics (rereading Sartre through Deleuze is the most politically urgent task ahead of us, as I heard someone honestly say at a conference in 2003). But I feel like I've been able to start putting that into words today.

Oh, and I wrote 806 words. So go me! But then I kind of started floating upwards a bit, so I went and bothered J, who told me kindly and firmly that I should eat lunch, which I did; and then I read the first couple of chapters of Stuart Elden's Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History which I was sort of dreading reading in case it made my whole project either redundant or disproven. But actually it was rather heartening, because it kept saying that writing spatial history (which is sort of what I'm doing) was terribly important (so, again, go me), but apart from that it didn't really overlap with my project very much. It made me feel like the book will be quite saleable, though, which is also heartening.

Also, I got childish pleasure out of the fact that while I was reading:

The river is simultaneously vanishing and full of intimation in a double sense. What is proper to the river is thus the essential fullness of a journey. We name the consummate essence of the journey [Wanderung] a journeying [Wanderschaft], corresponding to the placing [Ortschaft] of the place [Ort]. The river is the journeying.

Shania Twain was singing to me on iTunes:

I've known a few guys who thought they were pretty smart
But you've got being right down to an art
You think you're a genius - you drive me up the wall
You're a regular original know-it-all
Oh, you think you're special
Oh, you think you're something else
Okay, so you're a rocket scientist
That don't impress me much.

Which reminded me of my younger brother (hello!) revising for Philosophy finals by sitting in the kitchen in our old family home, banging his head gently against the table and saying hollowly 'Being is always the Being of a being.' Oh, that Heidegger.

And on that note, I'm going to finish this post. I have a bunch of photos I took of my workspace, too, which I wanted to show you, but they're really huge and they haven't finished uploading yet, so I'll have to make another post later, anyway, and J's friend H is coming over in about half an hour, so I should make an effort to get my head into a more sociable place, otherwise I will pin him with an Ancient-Mariner-like glare and start telling him that 'the Greeks experienced the spatial on the basis not of extension but of place', which, exciting as it is (no, not kidding), is not the way to win friends and influence people.