Welcome to the Real World

20 February 2009

It’s So Serious Here

La Jolla, CA (San Diego), by JohnnyRokkit, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)As a relatively naïve undergraduate in the early 1990s I made a statement born of my experience in the hardware and building industries. My political theory lecturer, who might well have been wiser than I imagined, had just returned from six months of deep, solitary research in the British Library. “Welcome back to the real world”, I said, to which he replied “what is the real world?” Damn, a philosopher. But it’s an interesting and rarely considered question. Just what is the real world, and how does it differ from those unreal, surreal or presumably imaginary places that we otherwise inhabit?

I ask this question because I meet the leading phrase again and again, almost daily, here in Hong Kong. There is an element of  ‘hard work is worth’ to it, but also a judgement – only certain types of hard work have value. As an undergraduate I first considered manual labour a ticket to the real world, which must have been a rather sweaty and unpleasant place, given that I lived in the deep tropics. I think now, perhaps only a little ironically, of the icy Gulag in Alexandar Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or at a more gentle remove the bleak, disappointing reality of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Zima Station”. Real life was tough – real life hurt.

And it certain did when I installed roofs for a living, but an 8 ½ year stretch of study allowed me to see this ‘reality’ in a different way, helped me to understand that effort, often prodigious effort, need not be physical. I retained my lecturer’s scepticism about real life, understood that the phrase was a demarcation rather than an observation. It says ‘On this side of the line I stand – real, working hard in some way, lending value more to some parts of life than others, ultimately disparaging a few ill-identified pockets of the surreal, the unreal, the lazy’. And so on.

It’s particularly interesting that this realisation came to me in the transition from work to study, as I shifted from being a wage labourer to a scholarship recipient. The imposition of the ‘real world’ on public discourse usually happens in observations of people moving in the opposite direction – from study to work. I constantly read it in academic descriptions of what happens after university, which is presumably some sort of primordial and carefree playground that I completely failed to notice while I was there. And, for that matter, what do such appellations say of academics? I imagine that they think more of their own efforts than they admit as they wave their students goodbye.

So, what is this ‘real world’ if not the result of a relational con? If Hong Kong is anything to go by, ‘reality’ is not the realm of hard work for personal gain as I first imagined, but a state in which capitalism triumphs over the individual will, pushing workers harder for no increased benefit (and no, Elizabeth, I’m not writing about myself now). It’s the $10 wage slave compelled to work overtime as the company slides into debt, the middle manager covering two or three positions after retrenchments. And it caries a sort of resolute morality within itself. The real world is deadly serious – you might want to check out.

Lucky? Not Likely!

10 September 2008

On Australian Exceptionalism

Of the many defining characteristics that Australians cling to in an often uncertain search for national identity, the notion that they live in the Lucky Country endures with little effective criticism. The precision with which the term is used – Australia is the Lucky Country and not just a lucky country, one fortunate land amongst many – precludes not only a comparative appraisal of whether it really is a reasonable description at all, but also any historical understanding of how the term came into being, what it might have obscured and the extent to which it will influence the future as that uncertain time forms on the edge of the present. The country is lucky, always, and there’s nothing else to say.

Of course it’s not uncommon knowledge that the term in popular usage is something of a misnomer. When Donald Horne used it in his book of the same name in 1964, it marked the epilogue of an extended inquiry into a mindset and a manner, what it meant to be a particular type of person at a particular time. As Horne’s subtitle read, he was writing about ‘Australia in the Sixties’, less nationalistic than it had been, somehow different than what other people thought of it, but a little forlorn, worried at the edge of Asia. He described a people content with their lot, but not imaginative enough about others, or even about how things could be different for themselves.

What worried Horne the most was the absence of a public life, a debate about what might happen next, what just might be happening now. In a sense that’s not surprising because the Liberal-National coalition had been in power since 1946 and Prime Minister Robert Menzies had only just retired after 17 years in his second stint at the top. It could well be a maxim of Australian political history that federal governments both create and maintain public discourse, gently prodding much of the populace to speak of certain things now and ignore other things then.

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