How researcher and author Stephen Muecke makes it matter
How do you give it mouth?
It’s because I translate.
I translate from French to English, which is one thing.
But I also translate from one context to another; by taking ideas to the public that they don’t expect. Or by taking ideas from one public to another.
So take for example the word ‘epistemology’ which I translate into Australian vernacular as ‘how you reckon you know stuff.’
That’s funny, because my second question to you is precisely on the topic of how we know we know stuff. Why is it important to take a look at not only what we know, but also how we know it?
Because of Malcolm Roberts, the new One Nation senator. I mean, he’s a really interesting case in that he’s got a firm denial going on about climate change and at the same time he claims to be within science. But if you scratch the surface, he’s not there at all. And he’s not talking any kind of science and he’s not accepted by scientists. So his discourse is circulating in a kind of bubble that’s protected perhaps by populism – or something else.
So no one’s bursting the bubble to reveal what’s beneath?
Scientists are trying to burst it but then they’re faced with the problem of denialism. He says there is no empirical evidence and scientists say that’s not the way to talk about this. Or they provide him with empirical evidence that he doesn’t read. So that’s the Malcolm Roberts syndrome. And the antidote means knowledge from one domain or discipline has to break through to other domains and other publics.
Tell me about your new book, The Mother’s Day Protest and Other Fictocritical Essays. Because I couldn’t think of a summary that captures the breadth of it.
It’s unified only by one thing and that’s a style of writing – the fictocritical style. And it’s perhaps more toward the academic end of the spectrum.
Having said that, you use very familiar and accessible forms within the book to translate knowledge, don’t you? For instance the yarn is used a few times.
Yeah, the yarn is a traditional Australian genre from the bush. And that comes about from the material. So I’m discussing a strike by Aboriginal workers in Western Australia. And I think, well why not tell that story in the way people involved might have.
It’s hard to contain, isn’t it, fictocritical writing?
Yes. In fact that’s one of its virtues. It’s a licence to experiment. So you’ve got a point you want to make or an argument. And the idea is that if you inflect that with a story as well, it might be more pleasurable for the reader and it could go to places it mightn’t otherwise go.
You often write your colleagues, friends and family into your books as characters. Does that ever cross any boundaries for you ethically? Have there been times when someone’s been upset with how you’ve portrayed them?
Oh yeah, somebody has. We’re not really strong friends anymore. I mean we got over it. Then he remembered! He raised it. And he said I read that horrible book where you badly represented me. That was the book No Road where I tell the story about having an argument with a guy and later he didn’t like the terms of the argument.
And especially because you do recall in detail conversations you’ve had…that interests me. I wonder what you’re thinking as you write and whether you doctor it.
I do doctor my writing sometimes. For instance my partner Prudence is called Patience because she needs to have some, she needs some patience. But doctoring yes because the real event might have taken place in a pub or something, but for the purpose of the story you want to relocate it so it fits with the theme or is simply more interesting.
And you can also put wise quotations in the mouths of characters who didn’t say them.
Have you ever had any complaints about that…?
Not at this point.
Lots of those French philosophers really going back to when I was a student there … Gilles Deleuze, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, and Bruno latour.
Your work is heavily influenced by the work of the French philosopher Bruno Latour. Tell me a little bit about his idea of modes of existence.
The most important thing to know about them is that they’re plural.
There’s a plurality of ways of being in the world. And they can correspond to institutions like the church for instance. The church promotes a religious way of being in the world. Latour likes that example because he’s Catholic.
Still? Despite everything … ?
Yeah. He was brought up as a Catholic and he thought, this is interesting, Catholicism is still around despite the efforts of sociology and psychology – and not to mention Communism – to abolish it. He thought there’s something about the way it persists that’s interesting for him.
But then he’s also interested in the other modes of existence. So you can go through life as a lawyer and that embodies a way of being when you’re being a lawyer, which is quite different to when you’re being something else. It’s kind of like roles, but it is dependent on the whole institutional framework that exists. Law would shut down if the law schools and courts closed. And so you have to keep the institution going in order for the mode of existence to be possible. And each mode also has its own truth conditions. What makes a legal statement valid and true and what might be true in fiction, or for a politician.
What about the fictional mode?
I Iike this one obviously because of my background in literature.
One of Latour’s interesting points is that fictional characters are real. They’re not mere representations or versions of real life characters. They have a real palpable existence that is none the less immaterial because you can’t meet a Jane Austen character or King Lear or someone like that. But they have a palpable effect on people because you can use them to test what that code of living might be like. And they are also immortal. So that if you wanted to get rid of King Lear from the universe – well – you could start by destroying Shakespeare’s plays but you’d have to also erase people’s memories.
That idea really thrilled me so much because it made me think about the wonder of what we do as writers. We create these characters that sometimes mean so much more than we give them credit for.
Yeah all you have to do is create a good character and you’ve got it made really.
Real characters can also slip into the fictional realm. Ned Kelly for instance was a real person and now he’s been mythologised. He’s become immortal and he has a fictional mode of existence which is stronger than his historical one. Now he’s indestructible.
Is that what gives the mode of existence its strength – how much it’s reproduced and recounted?
Yeah its capacity to be reproduced and to persist. So scientific ideas also have a mode of existence. You can establish a scientific fact through laboratory studies for instance but if you don’t keep it going somehow it will lapse. It has to continue to be reinforced and commented on.
That’s an idea I get through Latour and he gets it from an old Frenchman called Etienne Souriau who wrote about that stuff in the middle of the last century.
And he talked about how the work of art comes into being. It’s a process of “instauration”, that’s the word he uses. It’s kind of like ‘installation’. But instauration is bringing something into being where you can’t go backwards. Once something starts to form as a creative work the artist working with the thing realises they’re on a joint trajectory – they and the artwork working together helping each other and responsible for each other.
As a creator you get to the end and you get to the end and you say “Well I’ve done it, I’ve made this thing.” And it might be a poem, but the poem then requires the reader to greet it and cherish it and look after it in its future trajectories around the world.
And that could be as simple as telling a friend about it couldn’t it?
Sure. Or reading it aloud or writing a commentary about it…
So that ties in nicely with this idea in your new book, where you write “Let me grip you by the elbow.” And that is such a surprising line in a ‘serious’ academic text. That fits with the idea of being a caretaker of the poem or artwork. But is this also how you see yourself as a writer, are you taking your readers by the elbow and guiding them through ideas?
This is called critical proximity. Or intimacy with the thing you’re talking about. So there’s this crazy Western tradition of truth at a distance. You’re only going to perceive the truth, some philosophers say if you stand back and take an overview.
I’m asking why is this the way? I mean I’m not the only one to talk about critical proximity, but I say why not walk with it, so to speak, sort of walk in the same footsteps as the thing you want to understand.
There’s always a sense of motion in your writing whether it’s on trams or motorbikes or descriptions squirming snails. And also the writing itself moves in the way it moves fluidly between ideas and forms. It’s like parkour for words. And then you write, “You are what you can do”. I think these notions – how you write and what you say – are linked. Why is this idea of movement such an important idea for you?
The other way I like to put that is “You are what you have going for you”. Meaning “going” which is persistence and travel, keeping you moving forward. And “what you have” is your attributes or your attachments. So that descriptions of identity or being are interesting when you start talking about their attributes… like when you’re talking about a crab, you talk about it’s ten legs and its exoskeleton and its ideal temperature. All of these are what it has going for it. And if any of them fall off it’s less likely to survive.
Without meaning to water down your complex idea, I like the notion of what you describe there as a form of self-help. To see ourselves as the sum of how we keep moving – what we travel through and who we meet and how we use our bodies, rather than some fixed notion of being.
That’s a good thought because I have a real aversion to the deep down inside metaphor. And that’s where self-help often takes people. I could be out of date here but it seems people are still talking about interiors and things like “getting the real person out”.
Why is laughter so important?
Why is laughter so important?
Because academics take themselves far too seriously.
Stephen’s book The Mother’s Day Protest and Other Fictocritical Essays is available here: here.
Photos: Jim Clifford, Aaron Burton and Christina Carter