Non Fiction

John Curtin and James Scullin occupy very different places in whatever collective memory Australians have of their prime ministers. On the occasions that rankings of prime ministers have been published, Curtin invariably appears at or near the top. When researchers at Monash University in 2010 produced such a ranking based on a survey of historians and political scientists, Curtin led the pack, with Scullin rated above only Joseph Cook, Arthur Fadden, and Billy McMahon. Admittedly, this ranking was produced before anyone had ever thought of awarding an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip, but the point is clear enough: Curtin rates and Scullin does not.

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Malcolm Turnbull looks us straight in the eye from the cover of this handsome book, with just a hint of a smile. He looks calm, healthy, and confident; if there are scars from his loss of the prime ministership in August 2018, they don’t show. The book’s voice is the engaging one we heard when Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott in July 2015 and promised a style of leadership that respected people’s intelligence. He takes us from his childhood in a very unhappy marriage, through school and university, his astonishing successes in media, business, and the law, his entry into politics as the member for Wentworth, and ends with his exit from parliament.

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John Keane is Australia’s leading scholar of democracy, with work that demonstrates an impressive command of global sources. Keane’s most widely cited book, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), included new research on the origins of public assemblies in India many centuries before the familiar democracy of Greek city-states. Keane located the origins of democracy in non-European traditions, in part by tracing the linguistic origins of the concept.

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At the end of 1910, Irving Berlin took a winter holiday in Florida. James Kaplan writes, ‘Here we must pause for a moment to consider the miracle of a twenty-two-year-old who in recent memory had sung for pennies in dives and slept in flophouses becoming a prosperous-enough business man to vacation in Palm Beach.’

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This beautiful book is ostensibly a conventional art monograph. In its innovative tweaking of the standard model, however, Centre of the Centre is one of the most rewarding publications about an Australian artist in recent years. Exploring two decades of ambitious work by Mel O’Callaghan, an Australian based in Paris, the book begins now, with her latest projects. In a quasi-geological enterprise, it then mines works whose interconnected seams comprise expansive video installations, sometimes including objects; wonderful paintings on glass; and, always, performed actions. Speaking about Parade (2014), Juliana Engberg noted the ‘ritualised, Sisyphean endeavour’ characterising O’Callaghan’s work.

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In Australia, debate about population runs in well-worn grooves. The focus is on size – ‘big Australia’ versus ‘not-so-big Australia’ – and the tool used to regulate numbers is immigration. When politicians link population growth to excessive house prices, traffic congestion, unemployment, or crime, they call for immigration cuts, not for birth control.

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Madness ‘haunts all of our imaginations’, writes Andrew Scull in Psychiatry and Its Discontents, but it is more than a nightmare. Each year, one in five Australians will experience mental illness, according to the Black Dog Institute, and the World Health Organization warns that one in four globally will experience a mental or neurological disorder during their lifetime. The essays gathered here, however, raise grave doubts about the psychiatric knowledge and practice upon which these epidemiologies are based.

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Today’s transgender community is woefully ignorant of its past, beholden to ‘historical amnesia’ and the ‘erasure of much trans history’ – or so Barry Reay would have us believe. Reay, a prolific historian of sexuality at the University of Auckland, begins his new history, Trans America, by decrying the supposed trans failure to look to the past, before setting about the task of correcting, as he puts it, ‘the significant structural and conceptual weaknesses in trans history’.

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Long Live Latin by Nicola Gardini & Vox Populi by Peter Jones

by
May 2020, no. 421

What is the value of useless knowledge? One of the by-products of the rise of artificial intelligence is that the realm of what one really needs to know to function in society is ever shrinking. Wikipedia makes learning facts completely redundant. Pub trivia competitions now seem a fundamentally anachronistic form of entertainment, like watching a jousting tournament in the age of artillery. One can appreciate the skill, but one also knows that its time has come and gone.

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In 1991, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard provocatively claimed that ‘the Gulf War did not take place’. His argument was not a denial of the violence, suffering, and death experienced by civilians but rather that those very realities were absent in the mediatised consumption of the conflict. Dominant discourses reproduce the key events of the age, and the distant spectator can hardly escape the saturation of simulated symbols they entail. In Baudrillard’s words, ‘the warriors bury themselves in the desert leaving only hostages to occupy the stage, including all of us as information hostages on the world media stage’.

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