Ruling Passions: Essays on just about Everything, by Nick Perry (Otago University Press, 2011) 230 pp. $45
Rudyard Kipling, the globe-trotting bard of the British Empire, famously described Auckland at the beginning of the twentieth century in his poem ‘The Song of the Cities’ as: ‘Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart.’ This implicit glamourising, this poetic endorsement of ‘New Zealand exceptionalism’, as Nick Perry terms it, is one of the abiding cultural myths examined in Ruling Passions: Essays on just about Everything. In his miscellany of essays, variously written over the past two decades or so, Perry, Professor in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of Auckland, ranges eclectically and exuberantly across many examples of ‘cultural work’ and ‘media spectacle’, but at heart his book is concerned with constructions of New Zealand identity — and is not so much an exploration of its ruling passions as of its ruling anxieties.
As a nation we have a craving for ‘authentic’ representations, but as a nation we are also ironically knowing about patriotism and propaganda, and aware that the ‘authentic’ experience is a valuable commodity, vulnerable to packaging and marketing. Framing Perry’s essays is the notion of commodity aesthetics, mediated, basically, by TV commercials and infotainment in which, as the sociologist W.F. Haug has pointed out: ‘the beautiful image becomes completely disembodied and drifts unencumbered like a multicoloured spirit of the commodity into every household.’ And so the media turns landscape into brandscape, providing idealised, emotionally affecting moments, moments of self-identification, with folk jogging, fishing, picnicking, using their smart phones, and so on. Leisure, in a word, on an industrial scale.
Perry’s prime example of the invention of a New Zealand ‘authentic’ tradition is rugby — a sport which nods to the primalism of a rugged and blustery landscape, but which also asserts a communal grassroots regionalism. So he takes us from the iconic, even cartoon-like, prowess of the 1905 national rugby side’s tour of Great Britain, where they won 34 out of 35 games and earned the soubriquet of the ‘All Blacks’, to the polarising Springbok tour of 1981, to winning the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, to the globalisation signalled in the 1990s when the All Blacks swapped sports gear sponsorship by Canterbury for sponsorship by Adidas.
If rugby triumphalism is one preferred national narrative — a spectacle which in the words of French philosopher Guy Debord offers ‘the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue’ — other antidotes to that perennial bogey, the small-nation inferiority complex, are also taken from sporting overachievers. Perry points, for example, to Sir Edmund Hillary’s laconic remark about having ‘knocked the bastard off’ after conquering the summit of the roof of the world, and to success in the America’s Cup, memorialised by the yacht monument installed in Auckland’s Basin Viaduct.
Another identifier of the local Perry celebrates as a ubiquitous cultural principle is what French theorists call ‘bricolage’ and New Zealanders colloquially refer to as ‘do-it-yourself’ — as in held together with number eight fencing wire. He offers many examples, but Perry fingers as the most egregious embodiment of bricolage the self-conscious museumification of identity that is Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. To begin with, externally, the whole building is a mishmash of iconographic conceits, baled together conceptually as it were, with number eight fencing wire. However, here as elsewhere, Perry’s helter-skelter of examples, though often ingenious, is in the end homogenising rather than promiscuous, and reductive rather than paradoxical.
Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand and Sky City casino and tower are held up as signifiers of the ‘new metropolitan’, which brings Perry round to considering what version of the ‘urban imaginary’ best represents Auckland today, and finding authenticity offered by the 1997 cinematic spectacle of Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, in which the Queen City had ‘the kind of grainy ground down look and sensibility that befitted the grunge capital of the South Pacific’.
Perry suggests that the presence of the Skytower and its casino serve to remap Auckland, by making the tower the locus of understanding how to ‘read’ Auckland, which is as the economic centre of the nation best surveyed as a panorama from its top. In turn, he suggests that likewise the huge artworks by leading New Zealand artists wrapped around interior walls cannot be read as self-contained entities but only as contributions to the casino’s mise-en-scène of wealth, conspicuous consumption and market-forces ascendency. If you’re not there to win, you’re a tourist.
In the new world order of globalisation, location is ‘space plus meaning’, where meaning is provided by circuits of cultural production and consumption, offering, as it were, a smorgasbord from which we might pick and mix the overlapping identities out of which we construct our daily lives, aided and abetted in this process by a proliferation of malls and multiplexes, TV channels and other media. Or so Nick Perry intimates, with a suave exposition that occasionally brings to mind the telesmirk of the smarty-pants talking head.
The multiple varieties of latter-day capitalism packed into the term ‘globalisation’ go largely unexamined, and in cheerleading for Kiwiana on the one hand, while on the other employing a bland idiolect — or theorising language — of ‘flows, networks and processes’ to suggest how the modern ‘lonely crowd’ might interact with the ‘urban imaginary’ following the disappearance of old hierarchies of culture into so-called ‘networks’ (and surely new hierarchies), Nick Perry’s semiotics, part-streetwise (William Gibson and J.G.Ballard are namechecked), and part soothingly corporatist (New Zealand’s high education institutions may have seen the ‘ascendency of managerialism … and audit culture’, but ‘the sediment of earlier understandings’ also remains in play), are not at all heretical, idiosyncratic or eccentric, or indeed particularly prescient and futurist.
It’s salutary, however, to be reminded by him of New Zealand’s long tradition of anti-heroes, from Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame to Bruno Lawrence as the rueful and resourceful ex-bodgie in his auto-wrecker’s yard in Smash Palace, to the ‘feral’ Harvey Keitel character beachcombing in Jane Campion’s The Piano. And it’s amusing to be presented with notions such as the consideration that AJ Hackett’s bungy-jumping off the Eiffel Tower is a contribution to French Situationism, or that ‘sublimate’ resounds in the Kiwi ear as ‘sublime, mate’, or that the ‘stock images of New Zealand [confirm] New Zealand as a land of (farming) stock images’ — one, incidentally, that would be dominated, following on from Perry’s everpresent dichotomous schema, by two kinds of scenery-munchers: cows (economically positive) and possums (economically negative).
Perry subsumes his comic riffs under the label ‘antipodean camp’ — meaning ‘the spirit of self-mockery’ or ‘an affirmative hostility to the world’s indifference’ — as a marker of national character, pointing to other examples along the way, such as the insouciant ‘no-budget-schlock’ of Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead, and Havoc and Newsboy’s TV series, but all the time there’s a lurking sense that this quality of national character is no more than an adjunct to ‘the cultural mythology of someone else’s country’, as if these meditations on nationhood cannot quite shake off the inferiority complex of the provincial, the cultural cringe of the ex-colonial. Thus assertions of Kiwi exhibitionism are perforce undermined by awareness of standard-issue Kiwi rectitude and a concomitant uncertain cosmopolitanism.
Discussing the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, Perry combs the savant’s writings to locate ‘the two direct references to New Zealand’. One is in fact an oblique mention of the sinking of the protest ship the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985 by the French intelligence service; the other is a play on the near-homophones of Auckland and Oakland (in California), which caused a passenger in the United States to board a New Zealand-bound flight in error. Extrapolating, offering a view from the Koru Club so to speak, Perry’s subtly ironic point is that New Zealand identity is itself a category error: we dwell within the permanent marginalisation of near-invisibility, and either over-compensate by turning New Zealand into Middle Earth as in the Jackson trilogy The Lord of the Rings, or perversely insist on our right to dwell in a Kiplingesque limbo, waving validating documents, such as Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, or perhaps Ian Wedde’s guide to being neither here nor there — his 1995 collection of essays entitled How To Be Nowhere. (Unsurprisingly, Wedde provides a warm Introduction to RulingPassions.)
Yet Perry’s meditations — not to say nationalist navel-gazing — in this book are curiously dated. The standout clue to the nub of the matter lies in his consideration of the World of Wearable Art Awards; in itself, as Perry points out, a definitive example of grassroots populism, as well as a continuation of the counterculture’s post-Sixties street theatre tradition by other means, and also excellent evidence of number-eight-fencing-wire bricolage in action. But the peak of WOW’s Kiwiana accomplishments was achieved in 2002 when Prime Minister Helen Clark took to the catwalk to model a garment.
Zeroing in on this moment of spectacle, Perry zooms in on an era that has passed: The Years of Helengrad, that is, New Zealand as it used to be under the Prime Ministerships of Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark — the last years of the tyranny of distance. The difference between then and now can be summed up in two words: the internet. The plethora of information networks, the new and old media girdling the planet together, have served to dissolve that ‘tyranny of distance’. Nationhood is now layered with electronic assemblies — Youtube, Facebook, Google, Twitter — which are essentially placeless. Myriad digital fragments transmitted by these latest ‘vectors’ (to employ a term Perry has taken from the Australian Mackenzie Wark’s 1995 book Virtual Geography) undo ‘distance’. Instead we have the plugged-in solipsism of the niche-market digital consumer, and the emergence of database ‘tyranny’, along with the robotic bureaucracies of data-collection whose pace is dictated by the self-learning algorithms of machines. The response to this has included new cultural formations such as the Occupy pressure groups, prankster flashmobs, hacktivists, and various other allegiances of dissenters and paradigm-changers. These phenomena and their relationship to ‘the local’ await examination in another book.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Online Review.