Outskirts online journal

Moya Costello

Further information

About the author

Moya Costello teaches Writing in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University. She has two collections of short creative prose and one novella published. https://members.westnet.com.au/jeffmoya/moya/index.html

Publication details

Volume 20, May 2009

Of Lemon Tarts: writing. culture. neoconservatism.


Words, as precocious cherubs, demonic despite angelhood, gifted yet flawed, mischievous, willfully intent on havoc, rush at my mouth, a gutter awash in a post-storm overflow, filling it better than my dentist, who, for me, morphed rapidly into an aphorism that hangs around, as they do, that I can reliably call on to perform on cue, distilled, like disinfectant mouthwash, compressed, like a packed tooth, profitable as his fees. As an aphorism, my dentist ‘heightens discourse’ like pain, producing ‘an echo of really curious, indelible power’ (Derrida 67). He talks, my dentist, my mouth full, our conversations intensities, the dental chair a couch, a confessional, ‘giving … the trivially obvious the authority of a sentence’ (Derrida 67). He wears a bowtie; he’s an enigma; he goes on forever, like my visits to him: we’ve forgotten the beginning and don’t know the end. But, being a dentist, he does, indisputably, have ‘foundation’: he has a fragmentary appearance, ‘but also make[s] a sign toward a totality’—it’s his fees: via their plenitude I send his children to private schools (Derrida 67). Agitated, imprudent, and impudent, words will not settle down, well-behaved, like a passing mood, like post-dentistry teeth. My mouth, as slipshod container, and the words make an unsatisfactory alliance, an unholy encumbrance.

The gagging began … well, no matter the time, unlinked as this personal trauma was to ‘the great strategies of geopolitics’ (Foucault qtd in Soja 14), a depression in world weather patterns, a tsunami in the global economy, an internecine ethnic cleansing in a history war. ‘In the little tactics of the habitat’ (Foucault qtd in Soja 14) my therapists and GP assumed child abuse. I assume speaking, the gagging a sign, the sign perhaps, of immanent, increased sensitivity, of looped and continuous feedback. Words come from my fingers via nail-splitting (increase of age, loss of calcium, lack of silica), where I use multiple, diverse, historically engineered and mostly well-behaved prostheses—pen and pencil, streams of ink and slivers of lead, and the computer’s ‘light speed and electronic grace’ (Joyce)—as portable repositories, user-friendly mechanisms of control. Little machines will soon ride along the blood’s circuits, or respond within clothing. But in my mouth, words misbehave. Freud and his cigar prosthesis and his cavernous, cancerous oracular. Yet I’m @ home with the cyborg’s suffix, writing: annexed, fused, within my circuitry like a city circuitously routed, labyrinthine, marked with crumbs.

I plan a huge deletion of files and folders which multiply exponentially though contained like gravel on the floor of the car. I wouldn’t say no to industrial waste management, the use of a deep space mining ship like Nostromo to clean them up. 'Awareness expands' (Hayles 286) through and from the interconnected and incorporated body in context and amid chaos—the unknown and unperceived, the incoherent and inconclusive—amid ‘risk and mess’ (Potter), occasionally, contingent and unpredictable, an immanent ‘workable [solution] within given parameters’ (Hayles 285) shows like my head above water in a breaststroke lap of the pool when I smell, above the chlorine, the ramshackle honeysuckle that grows at the pool’s boundary. Such a solution, ‘a certain set of possibilities’ (Hayles 286) realised, can be experienced pleasurably as ‘pattern’—a ‘tendenc[y] towards coherence’(Gibson).

At 50 I return to being 15, reminded of the angst and awkwardness, the strangeness of the body, the lack of understanding of the world, the fractiousness of simple things as highly pitched vibrations. My skin becomes porous. It breathes. It reacts to and takes all things in. I’m sensitised to air temperature and pollen, to the chemical composition of a leaf and its active ingredients as I simply brush by. My body’s boundaries begin to dissolve; they liquidise and disappear. My emotions are seamless with the sentient world; my brain is connected to the integrated circuit of the globe in the interactivity of always-forming relations. I bleed. You bleed. We bleed together. My bleeding, my bones, my hair, my skin, my lips trouble me. In the crumbling masonry of middle age, the regime of the ageing body requires a changed shopping list, some discipline and critical choice, a new list of consumables. Quite different from the old lessons—change the bottom bed sheet weekly—we begin to learn new ones indirectly from our mother: avoid vegetable oil to prevent macular degeneration; take aspirin to prevent dementia.

My life begins to be lived by another me. In a parallel yet intersecting universe, I carry along some path I never took. There, I have been named as something I am not—as when my signature, my name attached to something, begins to free-float, while at the same time others begin to pin it down. In an otherwise referential text of real people and fictional characters from another author, the one character I create contacts me, named as I named her, with the history I gave her. In writing and reading, we are captured and transported in alien abduction (Gibbs ‘Writing’, 159). Writing is strangely, even frighteningly prescient. You can call down death upon someone; you can call up someone into being.

What is the equivalent of super glue for words? More worryingly, why do I hanker for it, given networks of text, effervescence, pulsation, oscillation, folds and crenulations. Crenulations. The way I write this from a crowd of documents plucked from the jostle that is my journal or downloaded from texts vibrating online like jellyfish. What I want are these intensities. And at the same time as I want flicker, I want fixity.


Our intertextual projects attempt to fix some quirk of the empire. They’re equivalent to networking on a microchip. Our texts fit into leftover spaces, gaps in territories. We make edited comments like passwords, bites of obscurity like small mouthfuls of birdseed. We associate with fruit-loopiness without that cereal’s commercial viability, with ‘the forgotten and the never known, the marginal and the minority … jewels of the periphery … the bizarre and the abandoned’ (Wilding 2); we are embodied ‘economies of scale’ belonging to lifestyle ‘coteries of taste’ (Brooks). Nevertheless here is the intrepid reader’s own suburb, their home ground rendered in text, contemplated and celebrated on their every reading like a feast day.

Neoconservatism is a philosophy of the fettered imagination lacking velocity. We re-fight issues we thought were dead and gone, stitched up, done and dusted. Our memory of past campaigns will interfere with our judgement and decision-making, in a fog of something like nostalgia, inappropriately. Yellow cake and atomic reactors. Abortion. As if they were new. Depleted uranium weapons appear as an item on a shopping list for the supermarket.

Fear is the epidemic, the pandemic. Cartoonist Judy Horacek named this dread Kevin. In one cartoon, she tells Kev, ‘Back off’, while she watches telly.


When we weighed nothing we were bright. We coulda had careers, and that skunk we got ourselves for pleasure, Writing, it brought us along another path. It was Writing. Writing is our blood relation, it should look out for us a little bit. It should take care of us just a little bit so we don’t have to take dives for the short-end money. We could’ve had wealth. We could’ve been entrepreneurs. We could’ve been millionaires, instead of writers, which is what we are, let’s face it. It was Writing (IMBD).

‘Excluded from the world of economic capital’, still we ‘acquire and use [its] cultural and symbolic forms’ (Webb). The writer's asset: the imagination; and through it to make creative work. Our works will, like a neoconservative slogan, ‘work for us’ (Webb). These seem small, these hopes, our creative works, tender like buttons, what is to be found in second-hand bookshops, an old growth forest. What we do is a small drawer, a cupboard, a private room in a house filled with sunlight and oceanic air, where intellect is considered, imagination is valued. Self-devised, calculated and implemented, quite beyond the known and applauded, our actions are byways, paths traced by us, not officially mapped. They counter the conspicuous, breaking out from the stacked and arranged, the officially sanctioned. Bravely, heuristically, they present ‘a sense of the aesthetics of alternatives and prefigure them through practices which embody them’ (Wright).

Our writing friendships—we carry on the group, the collective in digital forms—are ‘long-term symbioses’, alternative mechanisms for (co)evolution, requiring nonlinear, multi-level interaction and communication, a participatory aesthetics (Harries-Jones).

Why do students want to write? For the agency of the imagination, sometimes obfuscated with the fame of the signature, as a valuing of self against abjection. The difficulties of imposing their presence on the world and its events. The hard work, and the public acclaim for artwork however limited, both are addictive; their addictive quality unsuspected and unrecognised, making routine inexplicably unbearable. Online, in a writing workshop, it’s clear how writing generates affect. There are constant intermittent explosions, puffs of smoke from low-flame fires, crackers, when writing is critiqued. Students of writing sizzle before me because I want them to do better, while their fellow students praise as I taught them to. Writing ‘accomplishes something’ (Gibbs ‘Writing’, 159) exceeding the production of meaning. Intergeneric writing as one model of heterogeneity. Rhetorical modes as a toolkit. Here is ‘the pragmatics of text as much as their semiotics’ (Gibbs ‘Fictocriticism’). It’s an act, politically efficacious, on the world and the self. For ‘literary poetics’ are not irrelevant ‘to the anxieties of a planet in crisis’ (Potter). Through literature, we ‘attend to’ our condition ‘in the world’ (Potter), what we become through reading, decoding and translating at border crossings in a Bureau de Change (Costello), interpreting a source code for how to live: ‘foster[ing] social imaginaries that highlight flow and connectivity’ (Potter), modelling transgression for a social context, breaching borders between hierarchies and binaries, ensuring ‘connectedness and survival beyond innocence in an impure world’ (Sofoulis 92)—texts and narratives under sail and oar, and on the wing in a ‘plane of becoming’ (Colebrook xx).


Under neoconservatism’s practices of abasement, cultural pleasures are to be found in the cracks, holes and fractures, ellipses and caesuras of the everyday, obsessive perhaps, or a result of heightened sensitivity within a variety of ecologies in a degraded environment, characterised by a kind of porosity. The repeated playing of some songs or films for example, or a knowledge of the best lemon tarts. My friend tells me she played ‘Stand by Me’ over and over when her friend left her. I watch A Bed of Roses … too many times. Romantic comedies, of the teenage or thirty-something kind, are my fix. Ten Things I Hate about You twice, followed by The Prince and Me three times. These intertexts feature the inarticulate, the melancholic and grief-stricken, and the search for a way to live, for community and interconnection. I’ve contemplated lemon tarts at different Italian cafes and their pastry shelves in different cities in different states. The way Helen Garner can simply write of her brother, ‘He makes the best lemon tarts in Australia’ (Garner 53). My sister had said this of her chef in the same sentence repeated exactly. Is his name Ford? I ask my sister. The taste of lemon tarts is the way some poems fall into the world like dust: I never know how they’ve been created. Like gardenias growing profusely in Sydney, and Brisbane, and in spring their perfume filling the air across the suburbs. Or rain falling from the sky in Sydney, and Brisbane, in Melbourne and Gippsland, as if out of nowhere, its origins unclear and as if it would go on forever. I could make lemon tarts a literary trope like the great Australian emptiness or dun-coloured realism. Lemon tarts. Please explain. Don’t you worry about that. Let me say this.

Our home garden is un-manicured and un-madeover. There are no topiaries. No miniature box hedges. No standard roses. In fact, birds make nests in spring in the protected heart of a Cécile Brunner which, though with a small flower softly pink and scented, is a spreading variety, growing anarchically, undisciplined, sending out multiple, high, thorned canes in an ever-widening spray.


Brooks, Scott. ‘From Heteroglossia to Emergent Writing Practices: Reading West of the West’. Negotiations: Writing, the Academy, and Publishing. Australian Association of Writing Programs Annual Conference. University of New South Wales, 27-30 November, 2003.

Colebrook, Claire. Understanding Deleuze. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2002.

Costello, Moya. ‘Textuality, Mutability and Learning to Write’. Text 11.2, October (2007). <https://www.textjournal.com.au/oct07/costello.htm >. December 2008.

Derrida, Jacques. ‘Fifty-Two Aphorisms for a Foreword’. Deconstruction: Omnibus Volume. Eds. Andreas Apadakis, Catherine Cook and Andrew Benjamin. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.

Garner, Helen. ‘A Scrapbook, an Album’. True Stories. Melbourne: Text, 1996, 52-77.

Gibbs, Anna. ‘Fictocriticism, Affect, Mimesis: Engendering Differences’. Text, 9.1, April (2005). <https://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/april05/gibbs.htm>. November 2006.

---. ‘Writing and Danger: The Intercorporeality of Affect’. Creative Writing: Theory beyond Practice. Eds. Nigel Krauth and Tess Brady. Teneriffe: Post Pressed, 2006, 157-167.

Gibson, Ross. ‘Ecological Mentalities and the Rise of the Digital Database’. Environments and Ecologies in an Expanded Field, University of Adelaide, 3-4 July, 2004.

Harries-Jones, Peter. ‘Gregory Bateson and Ecological Aesthetics: An Introduction’. Australian Humanities Review, 35 (2005). <https://www.lib.latrobe.edu.au/AHR/archive/Issue-June-2005/harriesjones.html>. November 2006.

Hayles, Katherine N. How We Become Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.IMDB. ‘Memorable Quotes from On the Waterfront’. <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047296/quotes>. November 2006.

Joyce, Michael. ‘Notes towards an Unwritten Non-linear Electronic Text, “The End of Print Culture” (A Work in Progress)’. Postmodern Culture, 2.1 (1991). <https://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/pmc/issue.991/joyce.991>. 1995.

Potter, Emily. ‘Ecological Consciousness in Australian Literature: Outside the Limits of Environmental Crisis’. Hawke Research Institute for Sustainable Societies, Working Paper 29. Adelaide: University of South Australia, 2005. <https://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkeinstitute/documents/wp29.pdf>. November 2006.

Sofoulis, Zoë. ‘Cyberquake: Haraway’s Manifesto’. Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History. Eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro. Sydney, New South Wales: Power Institute, 2002, 84-103.Soja, E. Post-modern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso, 1981.

Webb, Jen. ‘Depression and Creative Writing Students’. Text, 7.1, April (2003). <https://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/april03/webb.htm>. November 2006.

Wilding, Michael. ‘On Remainders’. The Weekend Australian Review, April 30-May 1, (2005), 1.

Wright, Eric Olin. ‘New Possibilities for a Left Agenda in a Neoliberal World’. The Hawke Research Institute, University of South Australia, 15 July 2003.

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