Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 11 - Lest we forget
Log 11 - Lest we forget

No Poppy Syndrome
Gregory Dale Adamson


Late last year I lived for some time near Carcasonne in south-western France, a town famed for its medieval ramparts. In contrast to the tranquility of French rural life, Carcasonne was like any other "small town" - stricken by boredom, isolation and aggression. One Friday night, for instance, the time when all small towns seem to ritualise the fact that there is nothing to do, my accomplice noted that Carcasonne was "just like Hamilton".

At this time I happened to be reading the biography of Dan Davin, for whom the psyche and spectre of small town New Zealand was a perennial source of consternation. During a return visit "home" to Invercargill, for example, Davin recorded the following impressions in his diary:

"In spite of the pubs, the town is in its spirit unchanged — jealous, strong, narrow, small, censorious, ignorant, intolerant, prosperous, conceited, generous and hospitable, mean and complacent. The world’s worst small town... It is a town which strangles the heart and yet gives it intimations of a world beyond, escape and freedom."

Although also originating from Invercargill, from my perspective the contradictory attributes of intolerance and hospitality, jealousy and conceitedness seemed fitting for small town life in general. Accordingly, it is not for these reasons that Davin titled Invercargill the world’s "worst" small town, this is because of the intimations it gives of a "world beyond", or, in other words, the idea that there is always somewhere better somewhere else. The title of worst, in this respect, is irrespective of content, deriving solely from the impression that anywhere else must be better.

From a distance, it appeared not entirely unreasonable to extend this claim to New Zealand as a whole, rendering it in this case the "world’s worst small country". Again, it must be noted that such a status is not due to factual reasons - relatively speaking there aren’t really that many (except maybe that New Zealand consists solely of small towns). It fits because New Zealand itself ingrains within, Pakeha culture at least, the idea that better is always a "world beyond". Accordingly, no matter how good or bad life may be, there is always a pool of eager escapees. Which only adds to the irony, for it is to be expected that many are anxious to leave the likes of Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan, certainly bad small countries, but we must be the only race keen to escape what the rest of the world considers to be paradise.

Irrespective of the cause or causes of this tendency, the general idea that life elsewhere is somehow more authentic continues to govern independently. Its effects are manifold and widespread: an endless chain of individuals are continuously heading "overseas" in order to gain "experience" while the idealisation of the world beyond impels the majority to endure years of loneliness and poverty in London or months of boredom and discomfort trekking around Europe and Asia. Many, on the other hand, leave simply for leaving’s sake, guided by the sense that if they don’t they’re somehow going to miss out, although no-one is quite sure on what.

The dominant force is the tacit belief that true success and all that comes with it can only be had elsewhere which, in this case, makes leaving itself a prerequisite to achievement. Aside from the exceptions, who serve only to make the rule: film-makers, musicians, novelists, artists and academics all follow the same first step to success by buying a plane ticket. Even the barest of mentions in a foreign press, acceptance by some unknown art dealer in Manhattan, or having a short film shown on post-midnight cable television somewhere in Europe, are all greater achievements than one could ever achieve back home. There is common consent, though few would openly admit it, that no matter what you do or how well it’s done, you are a failure if you’re still in New Zealand. Which makes coming back tantamount to an admission of being unable to make it elsewhere, an anxiety that probably keeps more people from returning than the size of their student loans.

There is little doubt that New Zealand suffers from its ongoing diaspora. Australia may be stunted by its tall poppy syndrome but at least there’s someone to cut down to size. The main problem is that the idea that better is a "world beyond" works as both a cause and an effect: everyone leaves because there’s no-one here but there’s no-one here because everyone leaves. Antidotes to this predicament have appeared over the years - Dunedin, for instance, tried to pun people into staying [with their "It’s all right here" campaign], but sadly living there was never going to surpass the more innocuous sense of alright (a fact exposed by Balclutha’s pride campaign which announced it was "better" than alright). While, as "don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country" demonstrates, having to advertise your greatness to yourself only ever reveals the opposite, in this case, emphasising that "New Zealand" means lakes and mountains, rather than a people, even to itself.

For the most part, the problem can be attributable to the fact that, for the Pakeha, New Zealand is but a place of birth and not quite a culture. Few cultures could boast a cuisine consisting of vegemite followed by a buzzbar or a debatably indigenous pavlova. White New Zealand is still very much in its nascency, recognisably not British nor, as yet, comfortable where it is. It seems that since the Pakeha don’t really belong anywhere, they are continuing to emigrate everywhere - even Australia is no longer considered the loser’s option.

It’s in this sense that the "world beyond" which is supposedly better reveals itself to be a myth. For it is only better because it’s somewhere else and, as a consequence, both devoid of content and nowhere to be found. Even so, the very idea of it means that few people are ever content to stay where they are. This restlessness, however, conflicts with the fact that the development of any identifiable culture takes time: its identity is enfolded within the minutiae and mores of daily existence and evolves within the living continuity of its people’s sensibilities. It is this duration of sensibility which gives continuity to change, brings a virtual unity to phenomena as disparate as dress, cuisine and music, and gives artistic practice in general its distinctive character. In this respect, it is sensibility in itself which functions both as the cohesive and differentiating element in community. Although unrepresentable, because it exists only in living social relations, sensibility also constitutes the milieu within which exchange and production take place.

White culture has shed most of its pre-colonial heritage through isolation, cultural cringe and the levelling of the many class and regional differences from which it is constituted. Images are often contrived, or borrowed from the Maori, in order to fill this void and give white culture the identity it lacks. But they never really fit, because any representation will only fail to match what is immanent, manifold and continuously varying. Further to this, the immanent and living dimension of communal or cultural difference is elided by the commodity form, for it reduces existence to a lifeless materiality and all values to the same aestheticless plane of quantity. Since Pakeha New Zealand possesses such a minimum of intrinsic difference, capital has been able to progress virtually without resistance, atomising its tenuous beginnings in the process. This is New Zealand’s double bind, threatened from the inside by its own cultural adolescence and from the outside by deregulation and the lifeless monotony of capitalism.

The only way out of this difficulty is to reverse the reduction of life to work and money and give support to the uneconomic and the uncommodifiable, to make space for the formation of communal relations, so that in time New Zealand may no longer be just a place but a people. On the whole, there needs to be a collective effort to make life attractive. This would include such things as the abolition of student loans, since accumulating a mortgage sized debt to get a BA only ensures people will stay away. New Zealand also needs to accept that it is in the Pacific, not the mid-Atlantic. This would entail revising the rule of European law and actually teaching the Maori language, instead of using it as a cultural cosmetic. It would equally result in a university system free from its current inferiority complex, one which would take post-graduate study seriously and tailor teaching and research around local interests rather than those of Britain and America.

It is equally imperative that white New Zealand gives up the idea that culture is always somewhere else, in Europe or with the Maori, or that it is accidental to everyday life. One positive side of capital is that it has so reduced "culture" to entertainment and aesthetics to the spoils of a tasteless parvenu that, unless one’s sole aim is money, refusing to partake of the art "industry" is the first step of any valid practice. And since there is no other dimension to aesthetics than sensibility, then the singularity of the time and place within which one lives can be the only valid judge of expression. In line with this, New Zealand, possibly more so than any other country, needs to heavily invest in the arts, which does not mean exclusively the fine arts and the national symphony but music, television, literature, film, and architecture... and make itself attractive to those who wish to do more than simply make or spend money. Given time, New Zealand might one day become just another small country, a place where its people expect to live rather than being expected to leave.


Gregory Dale Adamson lives in Rotterdam, the world's best small city, where he is currently completing his first book, Philosophy in the Age of Science and Capital, which will be published by The Athlone Press early next year.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room