Summer Reading

I’ve been out of the blogging game for a while now (since August, in fact), but for good reason; in between finishing off my PhD thesis, I have been reacquainting myself with books that have nothing (or very little) to do with academia. Below is my summer reading list, an eclectic mix of fiction, nonfiction, fictional travel writing, art, and short stories. Enjoy!

1. Hav, Jan Morris (2006, originally published in 1985 as Last Letters from Hav)

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“Hav is like no place on earth. Rumoured to be the site of Troy, captured during the crusades and recaptured by Saladin, visited by Tolstoy, Hitler, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana, this Mediterranean city-state is home to several architectural marvels and an annual rooftop race that is a feat of athleticism and insanity. As Jan Morris guides us through the corridors and quarters of Hav, we hear the mingling of Italian, Russian, and Arabic in its markets, delight in its famous snow raspberries, and meet the denizens of its casinos and cafés.”

Interesting note: In the 2006 introduction by sci-fi great Ursula K. Le Guin, the author points out that following the original publication of Hav, travel agents had to deal with dismayed clients who were told they couldn’t book a cheap flight to the illustrious city.

2. Lost Horizon, James Hilton, 1933

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The classic tale of a group of travellers whose plane is hijacked before it crashes into relatively unknown territory. They are greeted by lamas of the now-illustrious utopian lamasery  known as Shangri-La. One of the most well-known literary adventure novels, the book is well-written, although it retains much of the kind of outdated behaviours and observations common in the 1930s. This fact notwithstanding, the book is very engaging. Great for those who want a bit of escapism.

3. Pastoralia, George Saunders, 2000

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A weird and wonderful collection of stories, quite unlike anything you  may have read before… A satirical and somewhat scathing look at modern America, the stories are set in a run-down caveman-themed adventure park. Highly praised upon initial publication, Thomas Pynchon calls the work “graceful, dark, authentic, and funny.” It is perhaps the strangest thing you’ll read in a long while.

4. Buddha’s Little Finger, Victor Pelevin, 1996

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I particularly love Russian authors and literature; their dark sense of humour and bleak but unapologetic stance on society (as well as their unique way with words) makes them a thrill to read. Here we have Buddha’s Little Finger, initially published as The Clay Machine Gun, and also published in Britain as Chapaev and Void. Another kind of adventure novel, though one intensely bizarre and psychedelic, the book follows the central character Pyotr Voyd, whose reality becomes subject to questioning. In one reality, Void is a poet fighting in the October Revolution alongside Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev. In another reality, he is in an asylum, and is unsure of which reality is real. Combining Russian pop culture with Buddhist philosophy, this particular work is a rare treat by an author described as “the psychedelic Nabokov of the Cyber Age”.

5. The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher, 2016

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From Pyotr to Princesses. I was very excited to hear about the publication of this book, ordering a copy in advance before it was published. I managed to read it in only a few sittings (and before the tragic death of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds). As a fellow diarist, the book in thoroughly engaging, and for my inner gossip intensely satisfying. Fisher’s writing is, as always, frenetic and full with untamed intellectual energy. While her long-speculated-now-confirmed affair with Harrison Ford is the book’s main selling point (and the diary entires and details on Carrie’s turbulent experience in the affair truly great reading), the remains of the book and Carrie’s in-depth reminiscences make for amusing yet heart-felt reading. The book is tireless from start to finish, and ends on a positive note from someone who defined and changed an entire generation of readers and film enthusiasts.

6. Goya, Robert Hughes, 2003

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Now for a bit of nonfiction. Acclaimed Australian art critic and theorist Robert Hughes died in 2012. Arguably best known for The Shock of the New and The Fatal Shore, Hughes tackles his subject not long after being in a now well-known car accident. I picked up a $2 copy of his extensive treatment of Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes at a monthly Chatswood Library book sale, having always appreciated the dark and romantic works of Goya (Witches’ Sabbath remains my favourite, and I was delighted to see a great colour picture in the book). Hughes analyses the artist’s life and works with his his usual eloquent, insightful writing, but also approaches the artist’s works from a personal account.



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Suburban Explorer: Abandoned UTS Kuring-gai campus

UTS Kuring-gai campus, closed since November 2015

UTS Kuring-gai campus, closed since November 2015

It was an unseasonably warm 24 degrees Celsius in Sydney today, so I took the opportunity to walk from Chatswood to Lindfield to explore the now-abandoned University of Technology Sydney campus at Kuring-gai. The campus, which is nestled in attractive bushland close to Lane Cove National Park, was closed down in November 2015, after the university decided to relocate its students, en masse, to the Ultimo campus. The Kuring-gai campus will eventually be turned into a new school (Kindergarten through to year 12), to compensate for the current over-crowding in many North Shore schools. (The school was initially set to be open in 2017, but has now been pushed back to 2019). For now, the campus is only frequented by residents of the housing development Crimson Hill, located just beside the campus itself.

The campus, with its endless brown brick buildings, was well-known for its design and architecture; the green carpets and pink (actually fuchsia) handrails in particular have since become iconic, complimenting the green outlook. James Cottam, in his article ‘It’s not easy being green’, says that ‘one of the first things to leap out at any new arrival to Kuring-gai has always been the vibrant green carpet and fuchsia handrails.’ Historians Cliff Turney and Judy Taylor, meanwhile, note that the carpet was designed exclusively for the campus, with  ‘the bright green of the carpet contrasting with the soft greens of the bush and the grey of the concrete.’ But on the webpage ‘What made Kuring-gai special (It’s not just the carpet!), it states: ‘In sharing their fondest memories, few fail to mention the canopy of green outside or the carpet of green inside. But it turns out that its best qualities are its well-developed sense of community.’

Green carpeted stairs 

One Reddit page is dedicated to a person asking if they can still visit the campus. One former student writes: ‘I loved studying there. The green carpet was the best. And the views from the library, the bushland aspect on a rainy day to study up for assignments – stunning!’, while another simply writes: ‘Just wanna see that green carpet one last time?’

The campus itself belongs to the European ‘Brutalist’ style of architecture (as was common with universities in the 1960s), and was designed by architect David Don Turner and landscape architect Bruce Mackenzie. I never studied at UTS, but I attended the university during opening week back in 2008. Eight years later, the university is now mostly deserted, the roads and lanes covered in leaves, with only the construction crew hanging around. The old UTS bus stop and timetable is still there, with more cobwebs.

The campus has become a peculiar site now that it is devoid of students; it generates a poignant air of both real and imagined nostalgia. The buildings radiate an unknown, unseen history. As I wander about the lonely roads, looking at the empty bike racks and noiseless classrooms, I feel melancholy on behalf of students who actually built experiences there. In the desolate hallways I can see the imagined shadows of past lives.

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Doors to the buildings are locked, covered with security signs, so I peer in through the windows. The vibrant green carpets and pink handrails are still there, as are all the street signs on the road pointing out the various campus buildings. There are no sports teams playing on the oval, which is wide and still dazzlingly green, with only a magpie making use of the space. A banner appears on the outside of the sports centre, advertising for the next boot camp, which will never happen.


The iconic green carpet and pink handrails remain

The iconic green carpet and pink handrails remain


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Remnants of university life can be seen scattered around the campus, such as an item of clothing from H&M, an old class paper on the ground, not too far from a crushed pen in the student car park. The campus looks as though it was left in haste.

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The brilliant sunshine seems mismatched with the motionlessness of the campus and the spiderwebs that have crept up in various crevices outside old classrooms. Through one dark window, behind a partly-pulled red curtain, I can just see what looks to be an old office, upon which old papers and a telephone sit discarded.

An old, dark office

An old, dark office


Some of the construction workers eye my warily, and when one calls out to ask if I’m okay, I simply reply that I’m just having a look around.

Without students and staff, the buildings and the campus at large provoke a curious feeling, not quite of pointlessness, but of restlessness. The entire place exists outside time, and acts as a kind of time travel to the past within the present. A simple walk through the leafy streets contrasts with the promotional material that still exists in the archives of the internet, making such phrases as ‘Ten good reasons to study at Kuring-gai’ seemingly redundant.

Eventually I head back out of the campus, which, as of August 2016, is still open for urban and suburban explorers and Kuring-gai alumni feeling the pinch of nostalgia. One can only speculate that its new inhabitants will form equally compelling and fond memories. Until then, the deserted campus looks almost post-apocalyptic, caught between the strands of the past and the future.

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Academic writing

My new article ‘Redetermining paradigmatic norms: is there any hope for academic writing?’ has been published at The Conversation. The article asks whether academic writing has improved 20 years after the Sokal Affair, in which a scholar sent a ‘fake’ article full of obscure writing to an academic journal, to see if they would publish it. They did, and it became one of the most notable (and amusing) hoaxes in academia.  Below is the article in its entirety, or you can read it here.

Language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe, because the external form of the clothes is constructed with quite another object than to let the form of the body be recognized.

The above is an excerpt from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s magnum opus, suitably titled: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein puts forth the fairly simple idea that the clarity of a thought or argument depends on the language we use. What’s ironic about the paragraph is that the thought behind the language is considerably simpler than the language used to express the thought.

This, in short, is what is wrong with academic writing. Many academics still operate under the flawed logic that good writing must be complex writing (or vice versa).

The Sokal Affair

Professor Alan Sokal. Cml3dp/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

This very theory was put to the test twenty years ago, when mathematics professor Alan Sokal sent in a purposefully incomprehensible article to the journal Social Text. His aim was to see whether the journal would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

The article, titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, was indeed published in the spring/summer 1996 issue of Social Text. In the article, Sokal argued that quantum gravity and physical reality are social and linguistic concepts. One of the quotes from the article reads:

In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the [pi] of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.

Once it was published, Sokal revealed that the entire article was in fact a hoax. He called his paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations”.

Similar hoaxes have been performed throughout the years, and the Sokal Hoax was used as the basis of an experiment by sociologist Robb Willer at Stanford University. Willer got his students to read Sokal’s paper, telling them that it was either a paper written by another student or an eminent scholar. Willer found that the students who believed the paper was written by a renowned scholar rated it higher than those believing it was written by another student.

‘Explosion in a dictionary factory’

Judith Butler. Andrew Rusk/Flickr, CC BY

Postcolonial theorist Edward Said, whose own work has often been criticised as deliberately obscure, once said that “at some point critics and writers become parodies of themselves.”

From 1995 to 1998, The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Award – much like the Bad Sex in Fiction Award but far less popular on a broad scale – was given to writers and academics whose work proved purposefully dense. One of the more notable winners was gender studies theorist Judith Butler, whose work, according to academic David Gauntlett, is like an explosion in a dictionary factory.

One single sentence from Butler’s work Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time was enough to make her the winner of the 1998 award:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of this sentence, the late philosopher Dennis Dutton remarked that “it’s possibly the anxiety-inducing obscurity of such writing that has led Professor Warren Hedges of Southern Oregon University to praise Judith Butler as ‘probably one of the ten smartest people on the planet’”.

The complex work of academics and their unwillingness to write for a more lay audience is unsurprising to some commentators. Journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times writes that the academic industry “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience”, while philosophy professor Terrance Macmullan argues that “most intellectuals simply don’t bother trying to engage the public.”

But what does it mean? Judit Klein, CC BY-SA

Of course, not all academic work is designed to be written for a general audience, which is why academia is distinguished from other kinds of writing, such as journalism. Each industry has its own specific lingo, from medicine to law, complete with its own buzz words and terminology.

When the idea in question is relatively straightforward, however, there is no reason why clear communication can’t be used over jargon. As Gauntlett writes about Judith Butler, “if one takes the time to dig through the rubble, one finds that her ideas are actually quite straight-forward.”

Academia today

It’s been twenty years since the Sokal Affair, but has academic writing progressed? That is, are academics any better at communicating to a wider audience, or to each other?

While some academics strive to keep academia a gated community, others, such as former academic Annetta Cheek, have developed initiatives to promote better communication. Cheek is the co-founder of the US non-profit Centre for Plain Language, which championed the 2010 Plain Writing Act, making it legally necessary for US government agencies to communicate clearly.

Writer Victoria Clayton notes that academics are now more willing to “call their colleagues out for being habitual offenders of opaque writing.” However, she concedes that “the battle to make clear and elegant prose the new status quo is far from won.”

For instance, the UTS Library Academic Writing Guide, released in February 2013, provides a checklist of requirements for academic writing. According to the guide, academic writing must be linear, informative, accurate, and complex, with essays “written using more complex grammar, vocabulary, and structures.”

It advises academics that:

Instead of two short sentences, use more complex sentence structures.

The demand to be deliberately complex is sutured into the very fabric of academic life. But complexity shouldn’t be confused for intellect. Writing in a more straight-forward way does not necessarily mean compromising on quality; as George Orwell outlined in his essay Politics and the English Language: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

While academia is indeed a specialist area like any other, ideas that are of importance to society at large – gender, race, equality, health, democracy – deserve to be discussed in a coherent manner.

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Twin Peaks and Philosophy

Star Wars and Philosophy, Mad Men and Philosophy, even Metallica and Philosophy; the good people behind the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture book series feature an array of books aimed at philosophically-minded lovers of pop culture. They also have a blog that contains essays on selected television shows, interspersed with philosophical theories. The blog features American Horror Story and Philosophy by Benjamin W. McCraw (editor of Philosophical Approaches to the Devil, which contains my chapter on Nietzsche and Satan), House of Cards and Philosophy by J. Edward Hackett, and Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy by Leigh Kolb, among others. The most recent addition is my new piece on Twin Peaks and Philosophy.  The essay discusses the popular cult television series (set to return in 2017) through the philosophical lens of Plato, Nietzsche, Freud, and Žižek, looking at issues from dream theory to morality. Here is the beginning:

“When Twin Peaks first arrived on television in 1990, it signalled a substantial shift in American television, featuring a morass of conflicting techniques and traits, from soap opera-ish theatrics, metafictional comedy, and supernatural elements which would go on to influence other shows such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Slavoj Žižek notes, Twin Peaks was “simultaneously comical, provoking laughter; unbearably naïve; and yet to be taken thoroughly ‘seriously.’” That it exhibited a homelessness of genre won over audiences with its quirky take on a serious subject matter…”

Read more here.


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What’s in a (pen) name?: writers and the fate of the female pseudonym


Recently, my article ‘What’s in a (pen) name?: writers and the fate of the female pseudonym’ was published over at the online feminist journal Feminartsy. Here is the opening:

‘What’s in a name?’ asked William Shakespeare. Apparently, a lot. From the use of initials to the chosen gender of the author’s name, research has shown that an author’s name has a significant impact on sales percentages. A Time article in 2014 showed that of the 50 most-read books by men on the site Goodreads, 90 per cent were written by men. For the most-read books by women, only five of the 50 were written by men, showing a preference to stick to one’s own gender… Read on here.

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From True Crime to Purity: the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

It’s that time of year again, as the Sydney Writers Festival gets up and running, with another impressive line-up of writers, critics, poets and more. Included on the list of free events is ‘The Underbelly of Sydney‘, a panel featuring Australian lecturer and author Dr Peter Doyle. Doyle will join Eleanor Limprecht, Anna Westbrook and Tom Wright in a discussion on the dark history of the city of Sydney. The panel will be held on Thursday, May 18 at Walsh Bay, from 11:30am-12:30pm. Here is a description:

Behind a pristine harbour and blue skies, our city has always hummed with an underbelly of adventure and misadventure. In the early days of Sydney, the cobblestone streets were lined with vice and violence. History’s players were the crooks and cops, thugs and judges, mad women and missing people. Local authors Peter Doyle, Eleanor Limprecht and Anna Westbrook join Tom Wright to share true tales of the colourful characters who shaped this city’s sordid past.

An associate professor at Macquarie University, Doyle is also an established crime author, the recipient of two Ned Kelly awards for fiction, as well as the recipient of a Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. Doyle’s latest work includes his new novel The Big Whatever, published in 2015.

The highlight at this year’s festival is the appearance of Jonathan Franzen, whose new book Purity (2015), said to be modelled on Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), looks at contemporary surveillance culture and social media through the lens of his Julian Assange-esque character, Purity ‘Pip’ Tyler, whose name alone has evident Dickensian origins. Franzen’s  rather sanctimonious attitude in particular regards to social media (a trait that is well known amongst his fans and discreditors), has been the target of many an unfavourable review, including one that appeared in the Gawker Review of Books entitled: ‘Jonathan Franzen’s Purity Is an Irrelevant Piece of Shit’. Franzen will discuss his latest novel in conversation with Anna Funder on May 21, 2016 at Sydney Town Hall from 8:30-9:30pm, with tickets still available for purchase (his talk ‘My Reading Life’ on the 20th is sold out).  In spite of the author’s declining popularity amongst contemporary readers (especially those embracing social media platforms), the event is expected to garner a big crowd. Other ‘big names’ to appear at the 2016 festival include Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, and feminist critic Gloria Steinhem, along with 2015 Booker Prize winner Marlon James.


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From Bowie to Warhol: Current Exhibitions in Australia

For art and photography lovers, the next couple of months in Australia feature a spate of eclectic exhibitions. While some councils in Australia are actively seeking to undermine the Arts industry, others are fully embracing the importance of art. The most popular exhibition of the moment is the Andy Warhol-Ai Weiwei exhibition at the NGV Melbourne which ends April 24. Looking at the the lives of the two artists, the exhibition emphasises their influence on modern art, featuring more than 300 works from the artists.

Warhol’s work will also be shown in an exhibition (one of two) dedicated to Marilyn Monroe:  Marilyn: Celebrating an American Icon is now showing until May 8 at the Murray Art Museum in Albury. It will feature photographs and artwork surrounding Monroe’s illustrious career and enduring pop culture mythology. John McDonald writes in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Albury has pulled out all stops for this show. The town is covered in pink flags and lights. There are Marilyn Monroe quotations on posters in shop windows. It’s worth going to see a city that is so supportive of arts and culture when other councils in NSW, from Broken Hill to Coffs Harbour, are working to destroy the galleries and audiences that have been built up over many years.”

The second Marilyn exhibition is Marilyn, showing from March 5- July 10, 2016 at the Bendigo Art Gallery. This exhibition will focus more on Monroe’s wardrobe, featuring over 20 original costumes from Monroe’s films.

For architecture buffs, there is Imagine a City: 200 years of public architecture in NSW showing at the State Library of NSW, which includes works by iconic artists and photographers Max Dupain, Lloyd Rees and Harold Cazneaux.

And to honour the late, great David Bowie, the small but popular Blender Gallery in Paddington, known for its music photography, is showing Starman 1947-2016, A Tribute to David Bowie featuring a series of intimate photographs of the revolutionary star.This will be on show from February 27 to April 2.

David Bowie, Mirror 1972 by Mick Rock


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