CITIES, how the world works

Moral Order of a Suburb vs Critical Dialogue

Dear reader, please bear with me while I am having German hayfever (in mid-summer, also, due to the endless cold we have had here when we were supposed to have spring and summer) and am incapacitated from all writing.

Meanwhile, I have been doing some research on something called ‘suburban mentality’, trying to find out whether it exists or not. I have compiled lists of ‘crazy NIMBYisms’. All this was done with another goal in mind, something urbanism-related and not directly theatrical. But, while finding out that ‘suburban mentality’ is (at least in sociology) a Really Existing Fact, I have also found vast swaths of material on how it shapes attitudes to conflict.

How? Badly. According to one classic text, M. P. Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb, it fosters avoidance at all cost (not merely conflict avoidance, but person avoidance). If this does not make the conflict disappear, the next tactic is ‘waiting for someone to move away’. If there is a stranger involved, the next step above is calling the authorities; if it is a neighbour, an anonymous report (even if the anonymity reduces the chance of successfully solving the conflict); if it is an intra-family conflict, bereaving the person of something important (such as grounding the child). If the conflict has not been solved by now, the remaining two measures are both extreme and non-confrontational: “A party to such a dispute may show signs of emotional distress, such as depression, agitation, poor performance in school, or self-destructive behavior.” Or, the ultimate sanction, the ‘permanent avoidance’: the spouses divorce, the child moves out of home.

The other text I found looks at how this suburban space provides no public space (what it provides is ‘common space’, a utilitarian, aesthetically neglected, affectively poor, space for getting in an out, collecting rubbish, etc), and, in turn, no ‘public reasoning context’ – the lack of which shapes a non-discursive culture, which leads to a non-conflictual culture.

The importance of conflict in social as well as individual ego-development cannot be overstated. When I use the term ‘conflict’, I do not mean violent or in some way threatening forms of confrontation but forms of sociation where individual interests and world-views confront one another. Conflict is generally seen as dividing segments of any population, but this is generally not the case. More likely, as Georg Simmel pointed out in his analysis of the phenomenon, ‘Conflict (Kampf) itself resolves the tension between contrasts. The fact that it aims at peace is only one, as especially obvious, expression of its nature: the synthesis of elements that work both against and for one another’ (Simmel, 1955: 14). In this sense, conflict gives the individual a stronger sense of self; it develops in tandem with challenges to the way he thinks, reflects, and forms his identity. Lacking conflict, one seeks privacy in order to avoid the public realm which can be a place of conflict. Therefore, conflict performs an integrating task: the individual becomes more integrated into social life through certain forms of conflict and antagonism. In avoiding these forms of conflict, the individual becomes detached from the pulse of public life (Baumgartner, 1988; Greenhouse, 1992). He does not wish to engage it, to enter into it, but rather to shun it creating a more atomized society as well as a deeper sense of anomie within
the subject himself (Sennett, 1974).

Michael J. Thompson, Suburban Origins of the Tea Party: Spatial Dimensions of the New Conservative Personality, Critical Sociology 2012 38: 511

With a relevance and incidental accuracy that is absolutely fantastic (considering that Thompson is theorising about the Tea Party in the US, and I am applying his theories to the Australian theatrical debate), Thompson concludes with the concept of ‘anomic provincialism’:

This detachment from others is not absolute; rather, what happens is that individuals form narcissistic senses of self where their social relations also become linked by what is familiar to them – closed structures lead us not only to avoid public life, but also to forms of self which are alienated from public life and become under-socialized, lacking the capacities needed for public life.

This has an important impact on group-affiliation. These forms of self will seek protection but also a reflection of themselves with others who share similar world-views. As a result, group affiliation becomes tighter, limiting itself to the known. Relations need to be personal; the impersonal (i.e. public) is shunned and feared (Sennett, 1971). The maintenance of certain world-views can therefore be maintained by homogeneous kinds of group-affiliation. Disruptions in the ways of life, in the world-views held in common by such communities, will be seen as existential threats and, many times, provoke strong personal and communal reaction. When individuals are prevented from diverse forms of interaction, unaccustomed to conflict and challenging the self and its predispositions, and relate to one another in ways shaped by anomie and alienation, we begin to see a more genuine picture of the self that emerges within suburban space.

Suburban life can erode the democratic capacities of citizens because they contain, or better yet, are specifically designed around the notion of closed social space. This is very different from mid-nineteenth-century urban planning which placed a primacy on public space. The result of this is a set of spatio-structural constraints upon forms of interaction and intersubjectivity which then lead to a limiting of interpersonal consciousness. The specific character of interpersonal consciousness, as I argued above, therefore leads to an under-developed or mal-developed reflexive consciousness thereby rendering public consciousness either non-existent or so underdeveloped as to be almost practically useless.

Lacking these forms of public consciousness, public reason too becomes impossible and, with time, democratic capacities of open discussion, public debate, toleration, and inclusiveness are all
undermined.

I have been observing the strange trajectory of the Queen Lear debate, and it seems to me too many speculations from above apply, for sociology not to be relevant.

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CITIES, policy & design

Show Ponies for a Young Nation

Show Ponies For A Young Nation

By Jana Perkovic

There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia — but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies, writes Jana Perkovic

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

It’s easy to dismiss these forms as niche pursuits; and they are, indeed, an ecosystem of small communities. When this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival organised a perplexingly dull launch for McSweeney’s, one of the world’s most innovative young literary journals, it was the Suitcase Royale, a local performance collective, who saved the event with an electrifying gig/stand-up/performance.

If our literature has forgotten joie de vivre, and our cinema is proclaimed “recovered” on the basis of seven good films a year, then theatre certainly ought to be recognised as one thing Australia consistently does well.

Overseas, reviewers rave about Acrobat, Back to Back, Panther and Chunky Move: circus, physical theatre, interactive performance companies producing cutting-edge work in their select fields. They don’t pay so much attention to the companies that swallow the lion’s share of our arts funding: our state theatres.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions.” The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

To be fair, there have been some improvements over the past few years. The Lawler Studio is a not-yet-properly-funded baby stage for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) with a small, but promising season, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s maturing Next Stage program brought in Perth wunderkind Matthew Lutton — and will present the abovementioned Suitcase Royale in 2010. But for every innovation that reaches a big audience, there is a scathing critical attack from the likes of Peter Craven that we need better-made plays, not avant-garde tinkering.

Craven typifies the deep conservative current in our theatre commentariat. While aficionados have organised themselves in the blogosphere, forming a reliable network of guerrilla arts reportage, the mainstream patron is limited to the opinions of the mainstream press, which consistently criticises any departure from pleasant digestive after-dinner theatrical fare.

The understanding that permeates theatre criticism, funding policies, festival curatorship, even the design of performing arts venues, is that theatre is an expensive toy to show off to our international visitors. It helps prove that here, at the arse end of the world, we have a functioning high culture. Arguably, we build “world-class” arts centres, fund show-pony opera and invest in international arts festivals because we fear being mistaken for a subcultural backwater. A national ballet ensemble — like a broadcasting network, a flag, an army and a giant ferris wheel — is a sign of a serious nation.

Hence the currency of theatre as an impossibly highbrow endeavour, something that excludes large swathes of the population who claim not to attend for the pricey “elitism” of arts events. Yet, when we leave the realm of the ethereal and the literary, of The Nutcracker and King Lear, it is often hard to distinguish performing arts from fairgrounds and other dubious entertainments.

Our mainstream arts funding reflects this confusion. Theatre is sometimes a flagship investment, and sometimes a failing commercial sector in need of subsidy. If we give it money, it better demonstrates its market relevance. Most of our state festivals were set up as tourism initiatives, providing world-class this and gold star that — but they are also judged on the extent to which they animate the city.

State companies are thus in a double bind: they ought to stage excellent interpretations of classics, but they also need to keep their subscriber base with populist programming. The media and the funding bodies do not question populism. Here the Peter Cravens, Andrew Bolts and Paul Keatings of the nation join voices to demand in unison that we fund some quality orchestras before sponsoring avant-garde wank.

So, while Opera Australia can cross-fund its season with My Fair Lady without reprimand, Kristy Edmunds’s edgy curatorship of Melbourne Festival was viciously attacked as — you guessed it — “elitist”: insular, pretentious, niche. But young audiences responded and artists found her choices inspiring.

This year, under Brett Sheehy’s artistic direction, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) broke box office records — mainly due to the sell-out performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra — and gleaned glowing praise for restoring mainstream common sense to the program. Yet the local theatre community has criticised it as too white, too European, too predictable, focusing on big-ticket events at the expense of smaller, braver shows, and — yes — “elitist”. In this equation, elites, like hell, are always other people.

It is a scavenger hunt for audiences. Where the audience preferences lie is not so clear. The MTC may have the largest subscriber base in the country but it is rapidly aging. Programming for the middle-class, middle-suburb punter may rely on unwise mathematics: audiences are not developed through insistence on a 19th-century understanding of highbrow. For all its success at the box office, often I felt off attending MIAF 09 performances surrounded by an audience thrice my age.

Melbourne Fringe featured no Philharmonic and managed to break its box office record in 2009 — despite the GFC — showing how robust specialised audience loyalty can be. TINA and Imperial Panda, independent arts festivals in NSW, have also done well, as has the inaugural Dance Massive, dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance. Perhaps mainstream programming should acknowledge these “passionate communities” and “creative laboratories” that make up the solid core of the arts audience: they, after all, nurture its most vibrant new developments. Even fans of well-made plays, we should recognise, are increasingly becoming a niche.

Rather than trying to stretch nation-making dinosaurs over an increasingly diverse nation, we should focus on nurturing smaller, specialised festivals, and recognise that our cultural excellence may lie not in opera but in grungy circus. Our current funding model is completely unsuitable for this task. Audiences will not develop through programming that blends the safest aspects of all our arts into a soup that, in attempting to please everyone, pleases no one. What we should do, instead, is encourage the continuing exploration of the many vibrant art forms thriving under the radar: they count as culture. And statehood? Aren’t we too old to worry about that?

Originally published on 31 December 2009, on NewMatilda.com

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