Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Last week I was interviewed by Jill Stark for The Sunday Age on the rise of 'demotivational' media.

In 'Inspiration overload on social media prompts rise of 'demotivational' movement', Jill examines the success of 'uninspiration' accounts, and the reasons behind it.

I spoke about the limited usefulness of quick emotional fixes, the danger of repressing 'negative' emotions, and the equal shallowness of glib can-do quotes and too-cool cynicism. A sample:
Damon Young believes both the inspiration movement and its sarcastic counterpart can be traced back to a basic human desire to be liked. 
"There's a glib vision of universal positivity and then there's an equally glib vision of universal doom. Neither is inspired by an interest in truth or justice or health – they're both inspired by popularity. Who can be the coolest cheerleader type or who can be the coolest cynic." 
And with a booming trade in demotivational merchandise, clearly there is money to be made in cynicism. 
Dee Madigan, creative director of advertising agency Campaign Edge and panellist on ABC's The Gruen Planet, said companies would follow whatever trend was popular and some were already jumping on the push to reject perfection and faux positivity. 
"Brands like Dove have tapped into that quite well where they've made it real but they still want people to aspire to stuff so their ads are still quite inspirational," she said. 
"Positivity actually doesn't sell as well. We're hard-wired to notice negativity more than positive stuff so in terms of cutting through, which is the first job of any ad, negativity works. But as soon as companies start trying to market a trend it actually makes it uncool."
(Image: Uninspirational)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

My darkest knight (for Batman Day 2015)

Illustrations: Jim Aparo, Inks: Mike DeCarlo, Colours: Adrienne Roy
It's International Batman Day, and I've a piece in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald about my childhood with Bruce Wayne's alter ego.

In 'My darkest knight', I discuss Batman's strange appeal. His honesty about his own sickness, and willingness to sublimate his most violent and painful urges--these provided a civilising model for me. A sample:
As with all mythic personas, Batman is a collection of tales and traits, not some single, eternal substance. Mine is the grieving foster-father of Death in the Family. The vigilante who is shot, stabbed and feverish, because he needs to suffer to atone. The maniac who limps back to his cave right after his fever breaks, stopping only to shave. The rage saves him again and again – but only so he can try to save everyone else. My Batman is guilty, furious, masochistic and profoundly lonely. Billionaire Bruce Wayne becomes a daylight persona. He is committed to the mask, his doomed, painful, often laughable vigilantism. Not because he is perfectly free, but because he is just free enough to accept his lifelong sicknesses, and sublimate his most destructive urges. 
For me, this was a needful pathology. Well before my first primary school punches, I learned that love is little protection from brutality and anxiety; that trust can be foolish, and meekness a vice. I was not yet a cynic or pessimist, but I knew that the promise of domestic safety was easily punctured. I took to the Batman mythos, not because it promised me toughness or tactical domination, but because it suggested something other than happiness. The Dark Knight afforded a glimpse of well deployed pain: of deft suffering.
Read the full essay here.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why the world does not exist (but unicorns do)

I've a review of philosopher Markus Gabriel's excellent Why the World Does Not Exist in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald this weekend.

In 'Real questions about reality', I trace the basic ideas of this exciting work of ontology. A sample:
It is difficult to convey the persuasiveness, scope and charm of Why the World Does Not Exist in a short review. It deserves careful reading - and, in my case, rereading. But Gabriel's main thesis is clear: there is no world. 
Importantly, Gabriel does not mean there is no planet Earth or Milky Way galaxy. He is not an idealist, who denies the material, or a naturalist who denies the autonomy of thinking. Gabriel is against monism, which reduces everything to one thing or principle: a super-object or hyper-idea. He also rejects dualism, which divides the cosmos conveniently into two. "Why two," he quips, "and not 22?" Instead, Gabriel is an ontological pluralist.  
To reach this conclusion, he first argues that nothing exists alone. For something to be, Gabriel argues, it must appear within something else: a domain. Gabriel calls these "fields of sense". And within these, each thing appears selectively. It says little about Gabriel's dog to know that the pet isn't Tuesday. So existence is always relative and contingent. It is also explosive, hence the nod to Derrida. To exist, each field of sense must itself have a field of sense to appear within, and so on. Gestalt turtles, all the way down.
The online edition of the review is entitled 'A pop philosopher on our very being'. For the record, I wouldn't call Gabriel a 'pop philosopher', with the connotations of this label. He's a philosopher who's written a lively, accessible book.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Story Arts Festival 2015

 Under attack at the Ninja Book Party (Photo: Megan Daley)
I've just returned from my final festival of 2015: Story Arts, in Queensland.

Wearing only my children's author hat, I tripped to a toasty Ipswich to run nine workshops for schoolkids, and muck around at a party.

With illustrator Peter Carnavas, I spoke about My Pop is a Pirate to groups of 80-90, ages 5-10.

'Hands up if you're losing your voice'
Damon and Peter draw...A CIRCLE
They learned about poetic sense, rhyme, metre and detail from me, and illustration from Pete. They also giggled and yelled at our shenanigans, and their own drawings.

On Tuesday night, we jumped into a Ninja Book Party with Tony Flowers, performing for a very excited bunch of preschoolers and primary schoolers. Organised by Megan Daley, it was a riot of screams, gross jokes and cupcakes with Very Red Icing

The Seven Samurai lost four warriors but gained a ukulele -
With Pete Carnavas and Tony Flowers (Photo: Megan Daley)
A philosopher and his henchmen (Photo: Megan Daley)
As always, it was a thrill to meet the readers, listen to their cackles, and dodge their tackles.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The philosopher's dogbox: reflections on property

My latest essay for New Philosopher magazine, 'The Philosopher's Dogbox', is now online.

It examines recent housing trends in Australia and the UK/US, and asks: might this shift our conception of property? A sample:
For many, ownership is existentially supportive. The mortgagee is not simply someone who has a house – she is an owner, with all the conscientiousness and safety this suggests.
And this selfhood is also bolstered against its shadow: the renter, whose unreliability and untrustworthiness bring about deserved unhappiness. Property has all the solidity of nature itself: ownership is part of the order of things. 
But this tradition hides a more complicated illusion. As Marx notes in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, property distorts human possibilities:
Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us.
For Marx, property is seen in two ways: as my labour, something inside of me which I sell to my boss; and as capital, something outside of me, which I get for labour (mine or someone else’s). But each of these is only one alienated part of a whole, which is humanity itself – what Marx calls our “species being”. What belongs to us is not simply this commodity or that asset, but our basic creativity: the ways in which we develop in history, by transforming nature and ourselves. Marx suggests that private property, even when a bargain, is selling our existence short. 
In this light, renting might help to make some less stupid, in Marx’s sense. When we no longer identify as owners – successful or failed, canny or imprudent – we are one step away from this emphasis on having. 
Yes, we still use our homes, chiefly to stay alive, rested and sane for tomorrow’s toil. “The life which they serve as means is the life of private property,” Marx wrote, “ – labour and conversion into capital”. And we are thronged by things to buy: the latest must-have, soon-to-be passĂ© brands, for example. There is no simple escape from capitalism. But for many, the mortgage is the chief purchase of their lifetimes – the property that justifies drudgery and symbolises superiority. 
Without the illustrious dream of purchase, property can lose its enchantment. If we are not labouring for the mortgage, what is the point? Perhaps there is more to life than debt, compliance, and competition.
(Photo: FSUPGM)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

When monsters invaded the Melbourne Writers Festival

Batman is a bit fed up. From Batman #6 (2011)
Words: Scott Snyder. Pencils: Greg Capullo. Ink: Jonathan Glapio. Colours: FCO.
Jane Sullivan has an excellent write-up of the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF15) in her weekly 'Turning Pages' column.

In 'When monsters invaded the Melbourne Writers Festival', Sullivan reflects on the privilege of a public voice, the monstrousness of abusing this, and other variations of the shocking, the galling and the plainly unjust.

She begins her column with my third session from MWF15: 'The Book That Changed Me: Batman':
Last week I went to the Melbourne Writers Festival and beheld a monstrous, fanged thing, screaming, scattering his attackers, driven by his rage.
No, it wasn't Mark Latham. It was the vision of philosopher and writer Damon Young, in The Book That Changed Me session, recalling his first encounters with Batman. 
Young spoke with passion, wisdom and humour about the deeply flawed and perpetually suffering hero of his childhood. Like most writers, he honoured that precious privilege for guests at festivals: a chance to speak out and be heard. It's a privilege not to be squandered.
It's a perceptive summary, which highlights the distinctive pleasure of being listened to. Like reading, hearkening is a fine art.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Melbourne Writers Festival 2015

A mirror-world Melbourne: St Paul's Cathedral, Flinders Street Station,
The Dumbo Feather caravan, and MWF at Federation Square
This weekend I was a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival: an Iced VoVo of literary fondant, performance jam, and the desiccated coconut of absurdist political grandstanding.

I had four gigs over three days, beginning on Friday with 'So, You've Published Book'. Along with my fellow speakers Monica Dux and Graeme Simsion, and Writers Victoria host Alexis Drevikovsky, my job was to be a boot, forever stamping on the human face of literary ambition offer some practical tips for aspiring writers.

Talking social media. Note characteristic
hand gesture: the 'idea pluck'.
Graeme highlighted the diminishing returns of constant authorial performance, and the importance of realism: do these gigs because you enjoy them, or you want to give something back, not because they'll lead to instant sales. What gets retail registers humming? Readable books, broadcast media and word of mouth, Graeme said.

Monica spoke of the importance of confidence and clear communication in pitching to newspaper editors, and regular practice in interviews. She also noted, as did Graeme, the value of balance: learning to say 'no' to gigs that squander time or weaken integrity.

I discussed social media and websites for authors, and highlighted the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value: jobs we do as a means to an end, and jobs that are ends in themselves. Sometimes I write to pitch an essay or augment my profile, sometimes I write for the pleasure of writing. It helps to know the difference, and be able to justify each.

As I point out in Distraction, technology is neither a malicious enemy nor an altruistic liberator. But it does invite serious reflection on what we value, and why.

From memory, I also repeated this classic etiquette maxim: "Don't be a dick." Put less simply, I take my public profile seriously. It's artifice, but so is writing--as an artist, I'm judged by my words. Why be judicious or brave in a manuscript but sloppy or craven on Twitter?

Next, on Saturday morning: My Nanna is a Ninja and My Pop is a Pirate. We had a quiz about ninja lore and pirate history, learned to draw the nanna and pop, and did some readings (complete with the requisite shouting from the kids). A fun morning, with a relaxed and enthusiastic audience.

Emoting the pirate pop (note earrings)
Drawing the ninja nanna
Saturday afternoon I hung out at Federation Square and tried to avoid the drunken cabaret of Australian politics. (I failed.)

Then, after the ACMI fire alarm finished (ALERT, NARCISSISM), I spoke about a book that changed me: Batman.

Wearing my Wonder Woman birthday t-shirt (thanks, Sophia), I told the Festival Club about my introduction to mortality, in Death in the Family. I described this striking illustration, by Jim Aparo. I also discussed Batman's resolve: not to pursue happiness, but to make the most of his broken psyche (and billions). There was also Sartre on the literary world, Nietzsche on 'style', and Wittgenstein on 'family resemblances' between Batmans.

After the talk, there were questions from Kill Your Darlings' Veronica Sullivan and from the audience. One, from Antoni Jach, was a request for three life lessons from The Dark Knight. My on-the-spot suggestions:
1. Recognise and sublimate the worst of yourself.
2. Be born rich.
3. Suffer artfully.
My last session was on Sunday morning, at the Northcote Town Hall: 'The Business of Writing'. A last-minute replacement for Julia Baird (my doppelgänger, I know), I joined Eugenia Flynn and host Dina Kluska for another practical session.

Grabbing literature with both hands, with Dina Kluska (L) and Eugenia Flynn (R)
Eugenia discussed the importance of integrity, confidence and privacy for authors, and the need for  genuine diversity (rather than tokenism) in the media--which requires more understanding from editors and managers. She also urged reciprocity: writers helping writers.

Amongst other things, I spoke about the importance of writing up (better to have an audience challenged than patronised); the ubiquity of literary poverty (of the relative sort); the need to be professional (as opposed to arrogant or grateful); and the danger of unambitious reading.

I believe I also called hate reading "a waste of life".

Northcote was our old neighbourhood, so it was intriguing to see how it has grown. And by 'it' I obviously mean beards.

Kudos once again to Lisa Dempster, Jo Case and the MWF posse for a great festival. Thanks also to Danielle Gori for her behind-the-scenes support, and all the volunteers and technical staff who keep things running.

That's almost it for this festival season. My last, the Story Arts festival in Queensland, is next month. Next year I'll be back with The Art of Reading (MUP, 2016) and, for kids, My Sister is a Superhero (UQP, 2016).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

This is forty

Sunday was my fortieth birthday. I am now officially an elder statesman, looking down my bifocals with a patrician squint.

We ate Freddo Frog ice cream cake for breakfast.

Alongside a bunch of schmick new clothes--not pictured--I was given a handsome Marseilles blue Le Creuset frying pan, from Ruth. There will be eggs (for Ruth).

There was also an Oliver Queen figurine from Nikos: currently loading an arrow in front of David Hume (who might take issue with Queen's ideas of necessity). And a Wonder Woman t-shirt from Sophia, which I'll wear to my Melbourne Writers Festival Batman talk on Saturday.

Nikos and Sophia also designed and made prints for me, by carving shapes into rubber. These now decorate the negative space above my writing desk.

On Sunday we tripped off to the city, dropped into Eisner-winning All-Star Comics, feasted like Olympians at the ACMI cafe and bar at Federation Square, and enjoyed ludicrously good (hipster) ice cream at N2 Extreme. IT CAME WITH A SYRINGE OF SALTED CARAMEL.

And almost in time for my birthday, the Dutch edition of How to Think About Exercise was released, which I'll highlight soon.

I'll close with Ernest Hemingway, on the day of his fortieth birthday, writing to his mother:
Well here it is my birthday. It seems, somehow, of very little importance. If I can write a good novel that will be much more. Well I have to write a good one. And I will. But some days the going is tough. Today for instance. (21/7/39)
As the kids say: this.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Mythic Noncompliance

Illustration: Valentine De Landro
I've written a profile of author Kelly Sue DeConnick, best known for her comics Captain Marvel, Pretty Deadly and the new Bitch Planet. It began as an interview for my regular Island column, then became a longer essay for Kill Your Darlings

In 'Mythic Noncompliance', I discuss DeConnick's feminism, her interest in plausible, diverse characters, and her relation to creativity and solitude. A sample:
In 2014’s Captain Marvel #1, DeConnick wrote of a little girl who runs too fast and trips, but for an instant ‘she’s outrun every doubt and fear she’s ever had about herself and she flies.’ This not only evoked the heroine’s ambitions, but spoke to generations of female readers. Mainstream superhero comics have a horrible reputation for misogynistic or sexist writing, which reduce women to decoration or plot devices. 
DeConnick is forthright about her own literary feminism. ‘When we limit ourselves to stories about men,’ she says, ‘and assume a readership that reflects the protagonist, we send the message to everyone else that they are other, that there is some kind of default human being, and they are not it.’ DeConnick believes writing that depicts a broader array of experiences is good for male readers, too, as they can then imagine themselves into other lives, instead of being ‘deprived by cultural depictions that only show Narcissus’ visage’.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Exercise and the mind with Brian Lehrer (NY)

I look like this after midnight
This morning I spoke to New York's Brian Lehrer about my How to Think About Exercise.

As it was 1am in Melbourne, I was simultaneously wired and weary. But Brian was welcoming and well informed, and the callers were spot on with their comments and questions.

Speaking of which, one caller I didn't reply to was Cece the dancer, who was 'pigeonholed', she said, as 'dumb' because of her vocation.

This is a serious problem, and it's the equally pathological complement of the 'weak geek' stereotype: agile, strong, fast bodies, who're expected to shrug off their intellect. The danger, particularly with professional sportspeople, is that they live up to this; they lower their cognitive ambition, and accept their role as thick bodies without minds.

Three cheers for professionals like Cece who exemplify a fuller ideal.

You can listen to my conversation with Brian here.

(Photo: Kevin Dooley)