Anne Brewster teaches at the University of New South Wales and publishes on whiteness and Indigenous women's writing.
Volume 20, May 2009
I dream I am at a conference in Adelaide. I run into an old friend and we go to the beach. In the dream I’m about to write. I start with the face. There were two ‘I’s on the face so I put two ‘I’s in the sentence.
Then I wake up and realise I’m in Ingie’s room in London, in transit. I’m on my way back to Australia from Iceland. In the dream I’d composed a sentence about the face so I get up and write it down. But I want to return to the dream and to the feeling of comfort that reunions with distant places and people can bring. Then it occurs to me that I am indeed on my way to a conference in Adelaide and that I have just been to a beach in Iceland. The beach is one of the rare beaches in Iceland that have sand. The sand is made up of distinct black and yellow grains. Diane pointed out that it had been produced by the action of the sea on the porous black and yellow volcanic rocks. In Iceland I had also attended a conference. I had talked about the split subjectivity of first-person scholarly writing. I realise suddenly that the first-person address has something to do with a different temporality. It lays claim to the present, just having arrived there as it were, anew. It’s like you re-invent the world.
Now I feel a little groggy and dizzy with jetlag. It’s raining outside as I go down to get a drink of water, thinking wistfully how there seems to be so much water everywhere except Australia, and how the dramatic climate change of recent years is hard to process psychologically. I grew up in South Australia, a place we described as the driest state in the driest continent. Everywhere else seemed luxuriant.
Each memory is the memory of a dream. Arriving somewhere else is always a return, though each return is different. Today I dream of an old friend and the sound of waves. I wake thinking about an aural pun that doesn’t quite fit on the page: two ‘I’s in a face. Since I am now up, I return to my writing. Documenting a dream is a good way to avoid metaphor. I want to avoid the habit of sidestepping the incomplete, of invoking the plenitude of identification - the exact match and perfect substitution - that metaphor implies. Lyn Hejinian compares dreams to eighteenth-century explorers’ journals. In their efforts to map various terrae incognita the explorers drew on description. Documenting the quiddity of objects and landscapes, they produced a paratactical, accumulative language. This allowed them to preserve the strangeness and particularity of objects and landscapes while representing them in a matrix of proximities to the known world.
I’d like to document the aleatory everyday: the oddness of things and bodies as they unfold in time before they are assimilated to the haunted phantasies of the familiar. To observe the strange lag-effects as everyday bodies turn over into history. I’m fascinated by those tiniest of incremental shifts in subjective identifications and disavowals, in bodily perceptions and sensations.
Of course the page but also the pause before remembering. The colour I almost see when I close my eyes. The word that sticks to me. The space that opens up before and after the word. The space that is whatever shape you give it: white wash, white lie, white out. I think back about leaving Adelaide. It wasn’t until I moved away that I understood that the country of my childhood and five generations of my family, was contested land with a contested history.
We are simultaneously the agent and critic of whiteness 1 While Bonnett ponders how we might recognise whiteness without reproducing it 2 Wiegman is sceptical of our ability to do this. Indeed, Bonnett’s argument rests on an implied voluntarism: that one can relinquish the privileges of whiteness through an act of will. However, Bonnett’s imagining of a political whiteness is nonetheless useful in characterising various contemporary discourses of resistant or anti-racist whiteness. If we cannot divest ourselves of whiteness we can at least, through our scrutiny of it, interrupt it.3 Although allocating positive content to whiteness at this historical juncture is problematic, it is useful to examine the ways in which we are part of its discursive and institutional reproduction. After all, our techniques of self-knowledge inform and are determined by our relationship with our others. Stepping back means observing both the affective and cognitive reproduction of identities, and dwelling within the play of affective dispositions in which we find ourselves located. As Taylor argues, we have traditionally conceived of modern subjects as “thinking creatures that feel” whereas contemporary neuroscience, for example, argues that, from a biological point of view, we are “feeling creatures that think”.4 To step back, I am suggesting, is to turn away from the logical-positivist critical-rational frame through which we view ourselves; it is to allow ourselves to be distracted. It is to “feel” whiteness; to observe the feelings that the knowledge of the colonial past gives rise to but not to be immersed in guilt, for example, which reifies the past. Standing back and feeling opens up a space in which it is possible to imagine a different future.
A night cluttered with dreams. In the morning I’m not sure where I find myself. So many imagined events and exchanges, no less real than the day I experienced while awake. It’s as if language keeps flexing its will while I’m asleep (like toenails growing after death), shrugging me off. I settle like dust, like flakes of body, over things and ideas, claiming them as my own. I follow trails of litter; I am always there are the end of the trail, suddenly awake to myself.
Brian Massumi talks about the field of intensity and emergence, that dimension of sociality in which displacements of sensation and affect produce the qualitative difference we experience as felt change. This field is the scene of the everyday, of the body's unquantifiable, moving experience. The “slightness” of this “ongoing qualitative change” Massumi contrasts with the “grandness of periodic rupture”.5 It is through slight movements, he argues, that qualitative transformation takes place.
The body in movement is taken as the exemplary site of emergence. Massumi emphasises the primacy of process compared to signification or coding. If process is primary, then determinate, signifying forms of culture and sociability, such as gender and race, are positions established as points of arrival or departure along the dynamic trajectory of movement.
These signifying forms derive from a field of emergence which is inhabited by tendencies and potentialities that aren't realised. Massumi defines tendencies as “pathways of action and expression” 6 only one of which will be selected and realised. The remainder form a realm in which futurity combines with the past. This realm is constituted by a “pressing crowd of incipiences and tendencies” 7 - a zone of potential, of the virtual.
A stone is a good thing to have on your writing desk. Its weight is reassuring. You imagine now, turning it over in your palm, that tiger’s eye is a good stone for scrying. Light shimmers along different planes like velvet. Good for losing your thoughts in, having rattled around all day within a routine. Maybe this is what scrying is: moving outside, alongside, between. Being moved by chance. The stone belies the notion of surface. You think about whiteness splitting and splitting again.
In the dense evening stillness of the desk as you wrestle with reading a pause opens up; you’re distracted by the faint, shuddering screech of bats. You used to wonder what that sound was when you first moved to Sydney. You recall the first time you heard bats, at Mataranka Springs in the desert when you and your father stopped to camp. As you approached the Springs you thought there was a horde of people chattering nearby, then you realised it was bats hanging in the trees. This strange noise from the heart of the country has haunted you ever since.
Now you sit at the desk at dusk, burdened with theory: the parallel universe of Deleuze’s expressive forms. It seems alien, unassimilable, like the sounds of bats. The one is not a metaphor for the other but theory and bats occur at the same time of day, against the same sky - a vast swathe of mottled cloud and shifting colour. This description is not metaphorical, you feel compelled to add. The sky is literally movement. Moreover, theory and bats are not identical. You engage with theory attentively and with bats through inattention, distraction and mishearing. Their relationship is not one of substitution but interruption. The movement from one to the other produces writing, carrying you back and forth across traces of “you”, across one day to the next, across remnants of theories and stories, across memory, feeling and doubt, across random things coming together and then shifting on ungovernably to something else.
I’m sitting in the dark room. Everything feels different. The wooden figurine on the window sill has the left side of its face lit up white by the moonlight. Out the window to my right I can see the lightning playing over the ocean and lighting up the rain. Sitting here in the dark I write by rhythm, guessing the spacing of lines and the width of the page. It feels like a scene set not for writing but for scrying. Writing is negligible; barely there at all. There’s no evidence but the sound of the pen scraping the page, the shifting of my hand. On the wall shadows of the trees arch and flicker. And through the window the house next door glows, taciturn. Everything talks in this alternately dark and lit world except the writing which will be restored to itself shortly when I switch on the light.
the conversation continues in small soft touches of wet light.
it’s the little things I notice
– this and that –
the tiny things that change,
and the fact that the word ‘change’
is simultaneously transitive and intransitive.
after much thought
I decide it’s time for change.
Seeing I am always ahead of myself this shouldn’t be difficult.
my memory improves. i stop in my tracks
hoping for the best, neither anticipating nor
regretting the pause that precedes remembering or forgetting.
2. Bonnett, Alistair. “Constructions of Whiteness in European aqnd American Anti-Racism,” in Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism, eds Pnina Werbner and Tariq Modood. London: Zed Books, 1997. 183.
3. For further discussion of this see Anne Brewster “Writing Whiteness: the Personal Turn,” Australian Humanities Review 35 June (2005); “Teaching The Tracker in Germany: a journal of whiteness,” in The Racial Politics of Bodies, Nations and Knowledges, eds Barbara Baird & Damien Riggs (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing , in press); “Beach combing: a fossicker’s guide to whiteness and indigenous sovereignty,” in Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts, eds Roger Dean & Hazel Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, in press)
Bonnett, Alistair. “Constructions of Whiteness in European and American Anti-Racism”. in Debating Cultural Hybridity : Multi-Cultural Identities And The Politics Of Anti-Racism. eds, Pnina Werbner, and Tariq Modood London ; Atlantic Highlands, N.J., USA: Zed Books, 1997. 183.
Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual : Movement, Affect, Sensation. Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. 1,30.
Taylor, Jill Bolte. My Stroke Of Insight : A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. New York: Viking, 2008. 35.
Wiegman, Robyn. “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity,” boundary 2, 28.3 (1999): 115--50.