Yesterday I shaved off my hair — my sister; loudly giggling in the background, my clippers; humming tunelessly beneath a number three guard and me; not sure if I should be feeling regret. It was the first time I have changed my hairstyle since high school. I had been mulling over whether to grow it out or buzz it off now that the barbers have all closed. Bringing an end to something felt more appropriate.
Early in the lockdown, my Mum turned to me, exasperated, and explained how she just wanted things to go back to normal. She wanted brunch with her friends and her kids back in school — most of all, she wanted that holiday to Noosa we had planned for July. The most amusing thing about coronavirus is the part where we all pretend to have been living terribly exciting lives before everything went to shit. And yet we include such trivial things in our visions of normalcy. Things we love so much we are willing to submit to the police state just to guarantee a chance at them.
In Victoria’s first wave it was golf and schools — the only state to fully suspend either. Andrews was ridiculed for standing in the way of those of us who just wanted to get on with our lives. Conservative jockeys thought the restrictions were too strict, but for bourgeois liberals they were not enough (or at least not taken seriously enough). Both argued these things for exactly the same reasons: they perceived a threat to the way of life Australia provides us with.
We want to return to the privileges being an Australian citizen is meant to allow, even if this crisis illustrates exactly why those privileges are the problem. We desperately want to be back at the pub downing a pint with our mates as we ignore the fragility of an industry structured upon casual employment (the girl pouring our pint has barely enough income to make rent). We want a return to football codes on the TV, forgetting for a moment that the sports we hold so dear are nothing without a steady stream of sponsorship and advertising which ram into us the notion that beer and online betting maketh man. Suburban parents everywhere want their children back in schools, not sparing a moment of thought that they are outsourcing outbreak management to underpaid and under-resourced arts grads (not doctors).
Mark McGowan, Annastacia Palaszczuk, Steven Marshall and Peter Gutwein — each of these leaders have closed their states off from the rest of the country for those exact reasons (beer, football and schools — in that order). McGowan has been rewarded the most for his staunch efforts as he is deified in WA culture. A commemorative t-shirt which praised McGowan’s love of pints and mullets sold out in an instant. Again, it is the little things that count (dare I call my bourgeois flight to Noosa ‘little’?). Without football we are agitated. Without beer we riot. Only these simple — normal — little things are beginning to fragment before our very eyes.
The university is one such normal. International travel restrictions have exposed the sector’s dependency on exports. It is a revenue driven model made possible only by an institutional culture that privileges research journals and international rankings over students and teachers. The six figure salaries of our university bureaucrats blind them to the failings within their own gates. They neglect the rampant wage theft as they raise rent for residential colleges and axe courses.
As the semester starts up again, we find ourselves gazing into the low-bit mirror of a Zoom class once more (remember when Zoomer was an ironic term?). Immersed in the reticent spectacle of tertiary cyberspace, I cannot help but feel as if the reality of education as subscription service is coming closer and closer each day. A digitised mesh wiring made up of the signs and symbols of things I used to care about. Now I can scarcely remember the reason why.
It is hard to feel as if all these metrics matter — the grades, the readings, my time management — when a quarter of a million people can lose their jobs with a press release. In The Hunger Games, the rich sit in front of the television as they watch the poor slaughter each other for entertainment. Now, they sit at home on their leather couches, golden labrador at their feet (of this, I am guilty as charged) and watch a similar festivity take place. Only this one is nowhere near as cool. There is no action, no blood — we do not even learn their names.
Our teachers cannot possibly know this. A disembodied voice at one and half times its usual pace does not care about such worldly things — stretched out and distorted through the tinny crackle of a budget microphone, accentuating those aspirated plosives with a dignified pop. I thought I might try yelling at it once, but it did not help. This voice does not belong to a real thing of flesh and blood but that mesmeric kaleidoscope of images that is the Spectacle.
When you listen closely you can hear it spread its whispers. Running along wires and deep-sea cables, cobwebbed antenna and aluminium satellites, it funnels its networked consciousness into our own where it mixes until I can no longer tell the artificial thoughts apart from mine. Perhaps there never were any there to begin. It is these same memetic whispers which I blame for the indifference of my Zoom classes. It pretends that everything is okay and working as it is meant to be as if what is happening is not the substance of a crisis but its aesthetic, something that only subsists within the superstructure of TV news.
My Zoom client is my only gateway to a madhouse gallery of the old-world ad nauseum — an old world that speaks to me only in a cryptic tongue of broken signs. This is a language I find I can no longer understand. Time on this side of the screen has broken off, fragmented as the rest of the nation continues on. It passes for them — those sick ones on the other side — and the rest of us are left in a liminal stasis. For Victorians, reality has blown up in front of their face.
In their Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guttari define deterritorialization. It is the process where the schizophrenic manner of capital separates cultural, social and political practices from a given territory. The university is experiencing one instance of this deterritorialization. Classes take place online and not all students are able to return to campus — or indeed the country. The practices that make up the university now exist in purely online forms. They have been separated from the physical space which once defined them. No libraries, no college, no lecture hall — being a student has very little to do with the things that once made up ‘studenthood’.
Victoria is dealing with this to a far greater extent. We cannot leave our homes except to shop for groceries or to exercise — within a five-kilometre radius and a one-hour window. We watch from a distance as the rest of the states reunite with the cultural objects we were all once divorced from. Our friends in Sydney take ski trips to Perisher while our own snowfields remain in limbo. We can still see the familiar insignia of our football teams on the TV, only this time they are beamed to us all the way from sun-kissed Queensland, not wintry Melbourne.
In this sense, the citizens of Victoria experience a deterritorialization from the cultural, social and political practices of Australia. This is not to say it does not exist — indeed the Spectacle goes to great lengths to remind us of the opposite — only it is no longer something tangible nor immediate. It has been uprooted from the places it was once found in. We cannot reach out and touch it.
During the mining boom, economists would write about Australia as a ‘two-speed economy’. They were describing the fact that the west coast was experiencing a growth in jobs and GDP on a level unheard of in the east. Now, Australia is something of a ‘two-speed culture’. We are split between those who can enjoy the old forms of Australian life and those who cannot.
The reasons why are not just geographical. The territory Deleuze and Guttari are speaking of is not necessarily the literal kind. This is not something that only impacts Victorians but the entire cultural apparatus too. Australian culture will continue into the near future, replicating the same aesthetic we are familiar with. This aesthetic may be grafted onto new economic, political and social structures. It is easy enough to return to the pub, not so easy to make over a million jobs suddenly reappear out of nowhere. This is to say that the old forms of Australian culture will be continuing and self-replicating across a new territorial landscape — both literal and otherwise. Nothing will ever be completely normal again.
The process of capitalist deterritorialization leads to what Deleuze and Guttari call the ‘body without organs’. This is the remains of a socius that has been completely deterritorialized. It is a blank slate upon which we can begin to record politics and culture anew se rabat sur. In this space there is potential — potential to overcome the old with something new, radical, unprecedented. As Deleuze and Guttari put it, we are left free to “shatter a wall”. The wall they are speaking of here is capital, but I leave it up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
The point is that while the signs of Australian life appear to continue, they can no longer operate upon the same cultural logic. To return to that normal way of life now would feel like journeying into Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zone. A haunting, shimmering portmanteau: it looks familiar, but I do not think I could explain it with the same language. This is the reality of culture under schizophrenic capitalism — it has become unhinged from reality, existing only in echoes.
This is what Derrida (and later Fisher) called hauntology: a closed cultural circuit endlessly repeating that which we have seen before. It lacks meaning altogether. These old and repeated forms of our culture are not the way out into any kind of new future. As Fisher notes in Capitalist Realism, they are taking us nowhere. This figure of speech is as literal as it is figurative when it comes to a virus. In 2008, Rudd signed a cheque and told us all to buy a plasma TV. We, on the other hand, cannot even go to the shops.
Any cultural credibility capitalism can lend our recovery is therefore no more than mimicry. If Nick Land is right and capitalism is indeed intelligence, it is an intelligence with very little regard for the human. It adopts the form of a sad and greyish outline. Like No-Face in Spirited Away, it emulates the shapes of our desires without any admission of why they exist in the first place — not quite understanding but adapting to them regardless.
A new question suddenly makes itself clear: if this new deterritorialized cultural current is one we no longer recognise (if only superficially), why should we make a return to it at all? If all we stand to lose is football and beer, maybe we should not worry so much. The view from this side of the pandemic is rather freeing. Perhaps we should embrace that, and the possibilities that come with it. The wall is already shattered. Why kick up such a fuss about putting the pieces back together?
My old university life awaits my return when this is ‘all over’ (a caveat: the quickest vaccine we ever developed took four years, also the time it takes to complete my degree). I am no longer convinced returning to normal is the compelling option. The holiday to Noosa can wait, Mum. It is not appropriate for one to speak of the normal. There is no such thing.
Even so, I am all too aware in writing this that I will not (cannot?) heed my own advice. We are no Nietzschean free spirits, for all our colourful polemics. If this were the cave, we would have only just glimpsed the fire, let alone the sunlight. Perhaps in a few months it will be nothing more than a tingling up the spine — a sense that something is not quite right. Give it even more time and I will have forgotten what it was I was ever so worried about. We can hang from the wall and call it standing all we want; nothing is going to change the fact that we are about to fall. And humanity? Well, humanity is still firmly sat within the cave.