… the multiculturalist’s many cultures cannot be captured by some textbookdefinition … Simply put, culture is always on the run, always changeful (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 1999:355).
Culture on the run. Cultures migrating. Migrating across cultures. This paper offers another way of approaching the problem. The argument is a relatively simple one. Simple in theory; highly complex in practice. It is that catching ‘culture on the run’ may be more effective through various renovated forms of representation than through what Spivack calls ‘textbook definition’; that it may be easier, truer and in the end, more useful to capture, analyse, and critique the best insights arising from a cross-cultural or multicultural perspective through various forms of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’; and that we have on hand in the modern university a rich array of techniques, skills and strategies that should now be more effectively drawn on, not just in the domain of Creative Practice, but in the core and traditional disciplines, across the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Successive definitions of what ‘multiculturalism’ is – or ought to be – have been put forward, each striving to bridge the contradictions that lie in wait for anyone trying offer shelter to diversity under the umbrella of any sort of unified or coherent concept. The problem is well set out, in a recent article by Timothy B Powell, as ‘how to recognise an enormous variety of cultural perspectives without either collapsing the historical differences that define these cultures’, on the one hand, ‘or sacrificing the ideological unity necessary to hold this diverse coalition together’ (2003:155). Definitions have been put forward, each to be challenged, varied, assaulted and generally shot down under the auspices of a particular brand of the Politics of Identity, or shot down in the name of a particular ideology that feels itself under threat by the kind of cultural centrifugalism, the kind of galloping dispersal that any notion of ‘multiculturalism’ will invoke. Or shot down, indeed, on intellectual grounds, where whatever definition that is put forward is shown to take on a reifying, totalising, essentialising character – a centripetal tightening of the definitional screws, so to speak – that runs against the fluidity, the diversity, the business of ‘being on the run’, that should lie at the very core of an evolving and changing multi-culture.
This paper suggests that the problem is not so much that the definitions are wrong. It is rather that the process of seeking to define may be misguided. That it is the basic discourses we are using to try to locate unities within that diversity that are apt to betray us. And that there are alternatives to hand in alternative forms of representation which can offer all the insight that might be wrapped up in definitional analysis, while avoiding some of the pitfalls – centrifugal or centripetal – that come with such analysis, and which will also convey, persuasively, some of the mechanisms, the needs and the psychic capabilities, through which consciousness is able to construct cultures, to ‘migrate’ across cultures. But first, some theory – recent legal theory on the nature of the legal function of narrative, and then some practice – Lloyd Jones’s recent prize-winning novel, Mister Pip (2006).
Within the realms of both constitutional and international law, there has recently been strong interest in iurisgenetic narratives, the cultural and even the aesthetic foundations of our legal systems. Constitutions and legal systems, even locally and nationally, arise from deeply contested territories, and the whole notion of the nation state as the product of an identifiable, stable and distinct culture – a culture founded in consensus, a common history and a collective mission – is fragile and usually shot through with fragmentation and dissenting groups. Robert Cover, in his celebrated article “Nomos and Narrative” (1983-84) and his wider studies of iurisgenetic fault-lines in American constitutionalism, explores ways in which splinter-narratives do or do not harmoniously co-exist within broader narratives, broader patterns of constitutional consensus, and ways in which the very meaning of the words of constitutional enactment may fragment, shift, and be open to multiple interpretations.
Even within relatively stable national cultures, the iurisgenetic culture can generally be shown to be fragile, poly-vocal and disparate, with the vital life of any form of constitutionalism assuring liberty of the subject lying less in the imposition of a monovocal legality than in offering a capacity to mediate, accommodate and align dissentient voices, tangential and contending narratives. The model is dynamic. New stories constantly arise, inevitably generating the need for new legislation and for new interpretations of existing law. More importantly, without those new stories, there will be no truly iurisgenetic basis for the kind of law that is next needed. Here, recent literature in international legal theory is instructive. Commentators now speak of a ‘crisis’, with globalisation and major population movements traversing, even breaking down the boundaries of national legal systems, and in the process, leading us out into territories where there is no identifiable or consensual culture, no shared narratives, no integrated vision or understanding of the kind that might assist us when we ‘run out of law’.
The solution? It has been variously framed, as the need for an ‘aesthetic turn’ in political thinking, in order to accommodate this new fluidity (Bleiker, 2001), a new ‘humanisation’ of law (Allott, 2002) to ensure that new iurisgenetic models are based in core human concerns, and an enhanced capacity to read and understand the core narratives, the ‘narrative supplement’ through which others approach, create and interpret their law (Ward, 2005). What we now need, in the international sphere, is a new epic to support our constitution, a new scripture, to support our decalogue – these are Robert Cover’s words (1983-84:4) – and it is in this context that I introduce Lloyd Jones’s recent Mister Pip, a novel which offers us a powerful representation of a ‘world run out of law’, a world where indigenous law is gone, the imperial and colonialising presence has withdraw, and the modern state has failed. Jones’s Mister Pip offers us some glimpse of the iurisgenetic voice, the narrative supplement which ‘comes in law’s place’, as a novel which is compiled out of ‘real voices’; that is, voices which represent genuine social needs and issues, and which tell real stories, tales of genuine human conflict. It is a novel that identifies legal need and creates legal meaning, and shows us how far narrativisation and in particular, impersonation as a narrative strategy can take us, in the context of multicultural theory, globalisation, and the ‘migrating of consciousness’. It can tell us much about the power of ‘narrative consciousness’, the putting of the self and a social world together through stories, in a world that has simply ‘run out of law’. It brings us close in to the psychic process through which new cultures are formed out of old, the impulse that creates a past, a future, a community, at the ‘core’ – in this instance, in the way a child puts her world together – in a situation where the perimeter, legal restraint and legal order has totally collapsed.
Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip has just won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker for 2007. The novel is set on a small island off the coast of Papua during the Bougainville crisis: where not only has the indigenous legal structure been replaced by both ‘settlement’ and ‘conquest’, but that replacing system is also in disarray. The islanders are blockaded and have been abandoned by outside world, by both local and imperial sovereigns. Jones’s novel offers us a situation where law has indeed ‘run out’. It offers us a vision of that world through the subjectivity of a young teenage girl. She is putting a world together for herself in the way that all children must do, but in this novel this is true in a richer sense because of the ‘lawless’ condition of that society. In this, she is assisted – perhaps hampered, in certain ways – by an imperial fragment. An eccentric white man, the last on the island, takes over the role of teacher and tells the island children the story of Dickens’ Great Expectations, with the key narrative energies of that story – the power of the characterisations, the narrative patterns of identity formation, of conflict, growth and transformation – becoming the ‘engine’ that drives the young Mathilda’s construction of her universe.
At the heart of the novel lies a rich, even an impertinent impersonation. Some would say, appropriation. Jones’s novel violates, in an almost specific and pointed way, just about every containment principle that has arisen from the Politics of Identity, with its creative ‘appropriations’, its impersonations that run across virtually every boundary that ‘textbook definition’ has ever drawn. Lloyd Jones is a white middle-aged male. His core impersonation is of the young Papuan schoolgirl, Mathilda, who assumes the narrative point-of-view and is the voice of the novel, the only medium through which the voices of others, her mother, Mr Watts, the Rebels, the Redskins, are heard. Here, Jones wilfully traverses boundaries of gender, race, nation, age, education and social class, in order to construct his narrator.
And not only this, but he represents within the novel a similar process occurring in reverse, as his central character, Mathilda expands her own empathetic process of understanding through a form of impersonation, seeking to enter into the inner life of a white middle-aged man (the teacher, Mr Watts, who introduces the children to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations) as well as into the life of the Redskins, the Rebels, and all the other adult characters of the novel. So what the novel Mister Pip offers, among many other things, is an extraordinarily rich and bold network of traversings, of white into black and black into white, age into youth and youth into age, as Mathilda’s understanding grows and she casts about her for those patterns of connectedness, all of which are open in a special sense and all of which prove, in a world run out of law, to be at severe risk.
A central interest in the novel is the way in which the power of narrative mediates our relationship with the Real World. Jones’s vision of how this works is tentative, cautious, rich in ambiguity. Mr Watts’ retelling of Great Expectations brings great enrichment to the lives of the children. The novel ends in Mathilda’s affirmation that it was though knowing Dickens’ character Pip, that each of them came to understand the special nature of their own experience and in particular the importance of their own voice. In this sense, Pip grows in Mathilda’s consciousness as a veritable icon of self-construction and transformation. Here, the novel seems to be trailing its cloak into the inner sanctums, not only of identity politics, but of postcolonial theory and postcolonial politics more generally. Mathilda constructs her new world from a mere shred, a thoroughly distorting fragment of the imperial culture.
Mr Watts, it emerges, has only told them a topped and tailed version of Dickens’ story. The children didn’t actually get access to the real thing itself. This is both pathetic, and, of course, thoroughly realistic, in the portrait that develops of the obstructed, colonialised consciousness re-working the world through whatever material is to hand, of which these imperial fag-ends, Mr Watts and his personal version of the ruling culture, are inevitably a part. Mathilda seeks to juggle the fragments and to re-forge them in workable combinations, so that she will find a ‘voice’, and so that her world will make some kind of sense. The telling of Dickens’ story, even an impoverished version of the story, thus brings enrichment. It also brings disaster. Great Expectations does offer, in Mister Pip, a model, a dynamic narrative for constructing a way of living in the world, but it also lays out fictions in a way that can blur the boundaries of the real. The ‘Redskins’ – which is what the islanders call the government soldiers – see the name ‘Pip’ written on the beach. They think it’s the name of a rebel, sheltered by the village. The villagers are unable produce this ‘Pip’. And in time, real disaster and extraordinary brutality follows.
There is nothing utopian about Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip. One of its most striking aspects is the contrast between the gentle vision of the teenage Mathilda, looking steadily outward into the lives of those around her. She looks steadily into the life of the alien, white, middle aged Mr Watts, and through his mediation, looks back into the rich fictions of the imperial culture, drawing on her empathy with the character of Charles Dickens’ Pip to mediate her own expanding impersonations, her ‘enterings into’ the lives of those around her.
As a tract on international relations, on boundary crossing, on cross-culturalism, multiculturalism and ‘migrating consciousness’, Jones’s Mister Pip is fragmentary indeed. The story it tells is volatile, dramatic, unstable, and finally, even incoherent – as one might properly expect a story that is run through the consciousness of a child to be. The categories of thinking are fragmented, fluid, impressionistic. I suspect it has been written, at least in part, as a kind of assault on all our favoured ‘critical categories’ – gender, age, race, social class – to offer an empathetic, impersonating free-fall through all the conventional categories of understanding and ‘making sense’, in favour of one crucially important alternative; the portrait of a sensitive, integrating consciousness of a sympathetic, meaning-giving individual at the very centre of the whirligig. Mathilda.
Because this is what good stories do. And by and large, this is what other forms of reporting and representation can’t. Is Mister Pip a ‘political fiction’, seeking to ensure that the New Humanism of Law will be, not a kind of top-down, patriarchal benefice, but an active and intelligent response to what is now required of Law? Is it iurisgenetic, in the sense that Robert Cover might have approved? It may well be, but in a way that functions from the centre, looking outwards, centrifugally, concentrating on the subjective, the emotive, the imaginative, rather than standing at the edge or above, looking inwards, from the perimeter fence of a neatly theorized position.
Because Mister Pip is a novel. It is not a tract in Social Science. And what this paper is really all about is the role of creative techniques – like impersonation – in the universities. How the fictions, the rich impersonations, such as we find in Mister Pip, can deliver ‘real information’. How the representational, rather than the conceptual approach, can better hope to catch ‘culture on the run’, and particularly where that culture itself is so conspicuously and dramatically fragmented, fluid, in need of deep reconstruction.
‘Creative Writing’ is a field that has grown hugely in the Anglophone academy, at least in recent years. The present paper is part of a wider project seeking to outline ways in which key ‘creative’ strategies might be adopted across the full range of disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Shifting point-of-view, the use of multiple points of view, interior monologue and stream-of-consciousness, experimentation with tone, ‘voice’ and forms of address, the use of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’, the adjusting of time-frames, the use of parallel plots, impersonating, personifying, interrogating, invoking (and exploding) the resonances of the traditional genres in epic tragedy, comedy, and satire, drawing on the communicative resources of traditional modes in irony, parody, travesty and burlesque, investigating and subverting ‘premature closures’ – and so on – these are all inventive mechanisms and strategies which, I suggest, can be used not simply in the domain of Creative Practice, which I believe marginalises the imagination as an analytical tool, and marginalises the power of fictioning and narrativising at a time when we most need it, not just in the creative arts, but at the very core of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
The principal barrier lies in the prejudice that ‘art’ only delivers its burden of information through the medium of academic commentary. In this way, the power of ‘material thinking’ – thinking through images rather than through conceptual coherence and ‘textbook definition’ – is effectively marginalised, moved off into the domain of what we’ve come to call ‘Creative Arts’, where genuine social insight, the power of the text to enlighten and change the world, is largely subsumed under aesthetic contemplation, textual comparison, critical evaluation; into the domain of sweetness, in the words of Matthew Arnold, rather than of light. The prejudice that we still work under, in the university, is that it is only when works such as Jones’s Mister Pip are subjected to conceptual analysis and are in some way ‘unpacked’ and critiqued within someone else’s conceptual framework that they have intellectual status of any kind. There’s a danger in thinking that, however far the artist may have worked over a period of years in making his or her core entities indivisible, it’s only when they have been put through the filter of criticism and a kind of conceptual pillaging that they are regarded as contributing in any way to real knowledge.
There’s a little poem that is well known:
I am the Master of Balliol College.
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.
What I’m suggesting is that there is now, in the universities, a whole body of skills and strategies, techniques, traditions, influences and models, available to every one of us for the purposes of ‘catching culture on the run’ – for both understanding and representing what I’ve called ‘migration of consciousness’ – which, I fear, ‘isn’t yet knowledge’, in the Master of Balliol’s sense. I’m suggesting that this body of skills and strategies is not being used simply because most of us don’t know how to ‘do it’, and don’t know how to read its products, and can only approach it through conceptual frameworks or conceptual prejudices of a kind which draw such brilliant representations of adolescent uncertainty, and the dynamics of ‘migrating consciousness’ as are offered in works like Jones’s Mister Pip, back into a world of ‘clear thinking’ and ‘textbook definition’. This world just happens to be exactly what the youth (in this case, the young Mathilda) is denied access.
We need to learn how to function in the domain of uncertainty, tracing the dynamics of the ways in which new social and ethical worlds are ‘put together’ out of the materials to hand – as in the instance of Mister Pip. In most instances, in the real world, those materials are fragmentary, elusive. The results of that ‘putting together’ are tentative, fluid; they are ‘making do’ in a highly compromised situation. Lloyd Jones takes us deep into dystopia in Bougainville, but against the collapse of the traditional society and the reciprocal brutality of the warring factions, against the fact that Mathilda really does have only the fag-ends of both European and her own traditional culture to work with, Jones offers us a powerful portrait of an integrative consciousness, a ‘migrating consciousness’, as Mathilda moves from step to step as her culture moves, shifts, and collapses – a culture on the run, indeed. Finally, and in a more literal way, she actually does migrate to Australia and New Zealand, still integrating, still innerly migrating. Jones’s impersonation is a powerful analytical and representational strategy that does not stop at Mathilda’s childhood and adolescence; though interestingly, and as in most autobiographies whether impersonated or not, the integrative dynamic does start to wane once Mathilda finds her way into a settled and stable society, once she no longer seems to need to create for herself a world that ‘works.’ For most commentators, this is where the external world comes together and the fiction starts to disintegrate! Against Hegel’s odd proposition that it is only in a legally constituted world that stories can be constructed (White, in Mitchell, 1981:12), here it was the world ‘run out of law’ that was the principal and urgent creative domain.
So what I’m finally suggesting – and what I now see being suggested across a range of disciplines in the Social Sciences – is that we need a new set of tools, creative forms of representation (imaginative, mobile, empathetic, boundary-crossing) that provide weapons for hitting moving targets in a way that tight conceptual definitions may not. I also suggest that the principal tools we need are already there, creeping steadily into the academy under the banner of ‘creative writing’. Impersonation. Hypothesis. Shifting point of view. Prismatic vision. Interrogation. Texts that, in the first instance, interrogate themselves. Thinking through images. Getting ideas into images. These techniques are creeping in, but only to what I see as the margin. In the creative arts. Recent commentators – as an Australian example, I’d choose Docker and Curthoys’ excellent recent work on historiography, Is History Fiction? (2006) – now suggest that much of what is taught there really does need to be knowledge, in the wider sense, and whatever the Master of Balliol might have to say on the subject; that it is now time for the Herodotean, the fractured, empathetic, polyvocal mode in history writing, for example, rather than the forced unities and spurious monovocal authority of the Thucydidean voice. We are now at the ‘sensible end’ of post structuralism. The inescapability of our perceptions being bent by the very tools we use, of all our tellings being bent and troped by inherited genres, is not news to any of us. What the techniques of ‘Creative Writing’ offer us, in all areas of the Humanities and Social Sciences – what Jones’s Mister Pip delivers on so splendidly in his rich impersonation of the young Mathilda – is the opportunity to ‘go with the flow’, and to get into step, intellectually speaking, with that culture as it disintegrates, re-forms, migrates. To provide insights that are dynamic. Even iurisgenetic. That will tell the real story about culture, migrating. Culture, ‘on the run’.
Philip Allott (2002). The Health of Nations: Society and Law Beyond the State New(York: Cambridge University Press)
Philip Allott (1992). “Reconstituting Humanity – New International Law”, European Journal of International Law Vol.3 no. 2 (1992), 219-252
Ronald Bleiker (2001). “The Aesthetic Turn in International legal Theory”, Millennium Journal of International Studies Vol. 30 (2001), 509-30
Robert Cover (1983-84). “The Supreme Court 1982 Term. Foreword: Nomos and Narrative”, Harvard Law Review vol 97, Issue 4 (1983-84), 6-68
Ann Curthoys and John Docker (2006). Is History Fiction? (Sydney: University of new South Wales Press)
Lloyd Jones (2006). Mister Pip (Melbourne: Text Publishing)
Hayden White (1981). “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of the Real”, in W J T Mitchell (ed.). On Narrative (Chicago: Chicago University Press)
Timothy Powell (2003). “All Colours Flow into Rainbows and Nooses: The Struggle to Define Academic Multiculturalism”, Cultural Critique, Vol. 55 (2003), 152-181
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1999). A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
Ian Ward (2005-06). “Narrative Jurisprudence and Trans-National Justice”, Texas Wesleyan Law Review Vol. 12, No.1 (2005-2006), 155- 187