Exhibit A: a Murray Bridge tomato that I bought yesterday at the Queen Victoria Market. I would describe it as small, locally grown, idiosyncratic and richly flavoursome.
Exhibit B: a supermarket tomato that I bought this morning. It is large, shiny, uniform, global, mass produced and bland. With regard to this product, the word ripe has no application.
‘Globalisation’ is a problematic word. It is a word that stands for too many disparate things that are not necessarily interconnected. The advantages of having an email address do not mean we then have to accept wholesale cultural domination by the USA. After this conference I think we should expunge the word globalisation from our language. The word disguises more than it reveals.
But for now, let me define what I mean. When I talk about ‘globalisation’, I am talking about global economics. I am not being down in the mouth about our capacity to visit a chat room, for example, or to download vast amounts of valuable data from the net. When I talk about globalisation I am talking about who has power and who is being exploited. I’m talking about my concern that we are abrogating responsibility for our democracy and our cultural estate and handing it over to the forces of global capital.
Where we currently use the imagery of a web. I want to propose an alternative. My visual image of globalisation is a series of pipes that run downhill into Australia. The entertainment pipe is particularly thick. It actually carries a vast amount of sewage. And as the valves are open (because cultural protectionism is being whittled away in the interests of free trade) we have an entertainment flow running in a steady stream from America. The notion that we are connected to cultural water systems all over the world is a spurious one.
Now I want to tell you a little story.
When my son was about four he developed an interest in dentistry. When anyone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he was very dear: dentist. When my neighbour said to him ‘That seems a pity, Jack—you’re so good at languages,’ he said ‘That’s OK, I’ll be an Italian dentist.’
Now he is thirteen and his career interests have turned to filmmaking, And he has just written his first film script. With his best friend Alex. The film is called ‘Deadly purpose’, written in the crime thriller genre, and you’ll be surprised to hear it is not too dissimilar from NYPD blue or LA confidential. In fact it is set in LA.
The film shoot has been scheduled for next school holidays. His father is the camera operator, his stepmother is art department. His stepfather is the president of the USA and my mother, Grandma Judy, is hair and make-up. Of course I had hoped to be cast in the lead role as the innocent and beautiful countess, but I’m not quite right for the part, apparently. They have been auditioning year 8 girls at lunchtime.
As it’s turned out, I have a small part as the waitress and my line is ‘Do you want fries with that?’
Now, the auditioning process has been very thorough. The key is a rather elaborate checklist, which the boys have drawn up and photocopied as a record of each person auditioning. It itemises the skills and emotions the hopeful young actor has to be able to exhibit. First and most important is the facility to speak with an American accent. That is number one. Then the list continues, emotions you have to be able to show on your face:
Then the other qualities:
realistic ability (that’s my favourite), the ability to be realistic
Now the problem for Jack is that each of his four parents had a little problem with the American flavour of the enterprise. How come you set it in LA? we each asked.
‘Because nothing really bad ever happens in Fitzroy,’ he said. As the mother ship I was very pleased with that response. I’m pleased that he feels safe. Obviously.
From his thirteen-year-old point of view, Fitzroy is not as exciting as LA. Really bad things don’t happen here. Our town is not the stuff of drama. Apparently.
‘What you have to understand’, he explains, ‘is that everything in America is cool.’
‘It’s like when you were young,’ he says to his stepfather, ‘everything in England was cool. Like watching that guy in tights in Sherwood Forest.’ (That’s his trump card for expressing how sad he finds our adolescence—that my husband had the hots for Maid Marian.)
Anyway, Jack’s point is that when we were teenagers we felt exciting things happened in a forest in England. For him, excitement, drama and life all happen in the streets of Hollywood and New York.
My question is: when are we going to believe that excitement, drama and life happen here, in our streets and backyards and in our home paddocks and on our beachfronts?
Now, that is an old-fashioned question, And most of us didn’t think we would need to ask that question again. Ever since the seventies we’ve all been part of building a rhetoric that goes something like this: we have a responsibility to participate in the creation of a genuine Australian culture. Because the stuff of our own lives is valid material for art. Because profundity and passion can occur in an Australian loungeroom and is not merely the preserve of Russians huddling around a samovar or Norwegians raking over their past in the drawing room, or the French languishing in prison cells or brothels. We have our own Australian stories and they carry with them all the potential for the great human questions.
We have witnessed renaissances in Australian film and theatre, where we have heard our own voices on the stage, instead of plummy English ones. Or American ones. We have told our own stories, explored our relationships with place and landscape and memory and history. We’ve told of the dreams of our people and we’ve given our stories a particular Australian flavour.
But this is a task on which we have scarcely begun. We have only one Asian-Australian film that has had a mainstream release. Only a few Italian-Australian or Greek-Australian films. We are only just starting to see Aboriginal films. We cannot allow this project to be swept away by the free-trade merchants who don’t give a toss about these complex differences, but who see us all as either consumers or as a labour force they can deregulate and screw over.
The corporate warriors who are powerful advocates of globalisation tell us that theirs is not a political position. It’s not a matter of choosing one sort of ethics over another. Its champions refuse to admit that they are the agents of ideology at all. Globalisation, they insist, is inevitable. It’s the way things are. The way we do things. The world is divided into buyers and sellers and the overriding aim is to maximise one’s potential for private ownership and private money profits.
Yet those of us who live in the real world, those of us who understand that actually the High Street and not the Internet is the highway of life, know that it defies common sense to rearrange the entire organisation of our society according to business principles—that is, private ownership and private profit.
The key strategy these corporate warriors use to silence us is the undermining of the instrument of communication itself—the language. Business terminology is assaulting the language and we all rush to get a grip on the new sexy talk to sprinkle it in conversation around the barbie. Until it becomes second nature. Unconsciously shaping the way we think.
The most pervasive and to my mind pernicious example of this sea change is how each and every one of us has been transformed into ‘the customer’.
I want to pause for a moment and talk about this. When you travel Qantas you are no longer a passenger, or a traveller, you are a customer. Remember ‘Qantas would like to welcome passengers on flight 432 to Singapore and London’? Not any more. ‘Qantas would now like to remind customers that flight 432 is now ready for boarding.’
At my local council I was once a ratepayer or a resident. As a person living in Victoria, I was a constituent, a voter, even a citizen. I was even happy to be a member of the public. At the doctor’s I was a patient, at the real estate agent’s I was a client. The list goes on. In our daily lives we all played a range of roles identified by a variety of terms. Now we have one function in this life—to consume. All nomenclature has been reduced to one title: customer—one who customarily purchases.
The steward on the plane last week told me it was company policy. ‘It’s more friendly,’ he shrugged. He knew he was talking crap.
The chief executive officer at my local council told me it was empowering. Excuse me? ‘A customer can demand better service,’ she argued. I haven’t quite figured out how the customer business applies to getting a parking ticket, yet. I am the customer and you are the parking officer providing a service in fining me. Thanks very much. Unless we really take this empowerment business on board. ‘I won’t take the ticket today, thanks.’ After all, the customer is always right.
Customership is a profoundly impoverishing idea. The idea that it is empowering is a real deceit. If government at all levels were committed to empowerment it would be working hard at the idea of promoting and rewarding citizenship that speaks to us of responsibilities as well as rights.
I’m not being pedantic here. ‘Customer’ is not just a name. It is a strategy that strips us of our multiple identities and reduces us all to ‘person with wallet’.
This is an example of the language of the corporate world impoverishing and dumbing down our culture.
My special interest is what has happened in universities, the subject of my play Life after George. At university the student has become the ‘educational consumer’. The subject as in sociology, or archaeology or chemistry is now called a ‘source unit’, which ‘the educational consumer’ (the student) can study as part of his or her whole ‘program package’. What used to be called research and the search for the truth is now a process of ‘buying ideas’. We call teaching ‘information transfer’ or ‘skills transfer’ as though the student is an empty vessel with the lid flipped up and information poured in. The idea that teaching could be about encouraging the student to think critically and rebelliously doesn’t enter the paradigm.
When the corporate custodians look at society, when they actually come down from the skyscraper onto the ground, when they wander up the main street, they find sites of activity that are not part of the marketplace at all. They find the bowls club, the library, the creche, the church, the school, the front bar at the pub.
The irony is that these champions of ‘competitive practice’ actually can’t stomach real competition. They will either corporatist’, by turning every social activity into a business, or they will dose it down. They will make the marketplace where they are overlords universal. And this is the challenge we face. Because as artists we represent the diversity of this society. We are on the side of democracy. We speak for difference. We are the storytellers, the painters, the poets whose charter is with the people. To fulfil this charter we must speak for democracy. And to do that we must never allow ourselves to capitulate to those who would close democracy down—and erect a shopping mall in its place.
There isn’t an artist among us who doesn’t want the opportunity to express him- or herself to the audiences of other countries. But I am sure the ingredients for international success are the same as the ingredients for what makes a work excite people in our own culture. The work has to speak to the human condition in a profound and illuminating way.
The idea that the marketing and managerial people want us to swallow is that the marketplace will sort the sheep from the goats. Cultural product that has been homogenised by the global entertainment machine will prove to be too bland and won’t sell. They say our Aussie product is in no danger from the ravages of monoculturalism because it is unique. Ross Mollison says that innovation will always win out. He will look around and find the innovative stuff to take to the world. The terrible truth is that there will be no innovative stuff there for the marketing people to sell.
Innovation is the result of talent, intelligence, application, discipline and practice. If we want our artists to make things of beauty and profundity and insight we have to be prepared as a community to allocate a proportion of our taxes to pay for it. And we have to do that over time. Moreover, we have to have laws and regulations that protect our distinctive and diverse cultural products from the overwhelming domination of the global entertainment colossus.
Because like this little tomato, we want our art to be ripe. And we can save Exhibit B for chucking at the Business Olympics, when it rolls into town later this year.