Tuesday 27 November 2012

Welcome To Middle Earth

Re-imagining New Zealand: Forty years of official biculturalism and assertive indigeneity have failed to suppress the colonisers' desire to refashion their new world in the image of the old. In this regard, "Middle Earth" has proved to be a much more comfortable cultural fit than "Aotearoa".
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT Middle Earth. That’s how the tourism industry has decided to promote New Zealand. Our national airline has even contributed one of its airliners, emblazoned nose to tail with images from The Hobbit movie, to elevate the promotional cause. This flying billboard will wow those attending the film’s “red carpet” premiere with a low-level fly-past.
Asked by a local journalist for his response to Air New Zealand’s generosity, an executive from the movie’s maker, Warner Bros, didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or titter. His consternation is understandable. Very few countries have been as willing to abase themselves quite so completely to the “soft-power” of Hollywood as we poor deluded Kiwis.
Having successfully persuaded New Zealand’s government to re-word its labour and immigration laws to industry specifications, increase its financial incentives and provide Warner Bros with millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity, the Hollywood moguls should be blushing with shame. More likely they’re kicking themselves for not demanding more.
And considering what we’ve been willing to do unasked – who could blame them! A friend of mine, returning from a trip to the United States, told me of his cringing embarrassment upon discovering that Air New Zealand’s passenger safety instructional video now doubles as a trailer for The Hobbit (complete with the Gollum character crawling up the aisle in search of  his “Prescioussss” – presumably the nearest exit!)
Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why are we so quick to dismiss even the slightest criticism of the Middle Earth franchise? How has The Hobbit’s director, Sir Peter Jackson, acquired such a powerful grip upon the public’s imagination and affection, and thus upon the direction of Government policy? What has caused a little nation located in the South Pacific to expend so much time, energy and money transforming itself into a bucolic version of medieval England?
Perhaps, after nearly forty years of official decolonisation, Sir Peter’s masterful adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpieces has opened a long-locked door to the colonisers’ cultural storehouse. Most New Zealanders are, when all is said and done, English speakers and (as Maori have been telling us for nearly forty years) culture and language are inextricably linked.
Transported half way across the planet our ancestors lost little time in reshaping Aotearoa’s natural landscape with flora and fauna appropriate to their vocabulary. And alongside the oaks and elms, sheep and cattle they’d introduced, they also constructed churches, schools, town halls and railway stations designed to “age” their young colony. It’s why the centre of Christchurch used to, and the heart of Dunedin still does, look like it’s stood there for centuries.
Ageing The Colony: St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Auckland: "A baroque tower in Symonds Street that appears to have stood there since 1730." (Photo by Chris Harris)
Two great waves of cultural change have laid much of this “Better Britain” flat. The first was the wave of brutal modernist architecture which reduced the neo-classical and Gothic buildings of our Victorian forebears to rubble. And as modernism flattened New Zealand’s constructed landscape, so the second great wave: officially sanctioned bi-culturalism and assertive indigeneity; deconstructed its fondest cultural assumptions and undermined its intellectual confidence.
This great laying to waste of the West’s best stories, which goes by the name of Post-Modernism, is described by the social theorist, Frederic Jameson, as “the cultural logic of late-capitalism”. It’s most devastating characteristic is its power to dissolve boundaries. High and popular culture mingle promiscuously in the post-modern societies of the 21st Century; as do past and present, fact and fiction, science and religion.
Sir Peter Jackson floats freely in this post-modern world – as his mischievous 1995 faux documentary, Forgotten Silver, made very clear. Who better, then, to overlay Tolkien’s Middle Earth upon a New Zealand landscape already transformed by the ecological imperialism of its Victorian colonisers? The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and now The Hobbit, may “only” be movies, but that has not prevented them from turning Mt Ngaurahoe into “Mt Doom” and Matamata into “Hobbiton”.
Tolkein’s writings may be fictional but they possess a cultural power that is very real. And thanks to the cinematographic skills of Sir Peter Jackson and the digital magic of Weta Workshops, Pakeha New Zealanders have been given reference points that owe nothing to their country’s indigenous culture. In our post-modern world, where reality has taken on an alarmingly subjective quality, “Middle Earth” is a much more comfortable fit than “Aotearoa”.
More comfortable, too, for dwellers in a “West” beset with economic, political, environmental and cultural challenges. A West in whose eyes New Zealand stands as a refuge every bit as wholesome and protected as “The Shire”. New Zealanders’ desire for cultural reassurance and comfort is thus reinforced by an international audience desperate to escape the daunting challenges of multiculturalism and austerity.
No, the tourism industry and Air New Zealand should have little difficulty in filling those airliners. Not while Middle Earth is so much more enjoyable than the real one.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27th November 2012.


Charles said...

What do you mean by 'indiginous culture'? The one we are ignoring you say. Well my indigenous culture is Pakeha and it is every bit as unique as any other one, in this land called New Zealand in English not Aotearoa, which North Island Maori for their island. My culture may have a Maori name but it has few Maori attributes. Despite this it is way way the foremost culture making up what could be called NZ Culture and yes it is very much influenced by British Culture and that similarly is dominated by English Culture. So what? It is an organic thing and I am very happy with all of that. When it comes to Hobbits we have adopted them wholeheartedly because they are part of Pakeha Culture through our British & English origins which are still alive and well and developing. Immigration from the original home country continues and we like it that way. We spread our culture to others including other NZ Cultures such as Maori. Guess what? All cultures are the same in this regard and your complaints about it show a lack of understanding about how cultures work. As an aside, those in Hobbitland who see themselves as of Maori Culture are mostly also of Pakeha Culture and in that way truely bi-cultural. That is a result of numbers and the dominance of Pakeha Culture in Hobbitland. Not a bad thing or some wrong, just a fact of the success of Pakeha Culture and sex between humans! It is the way it is so why are you complaining about it?

Anonymous said...

the Lord of the Rings may just turn out to be the cartoon version of the Road to Serfdom ...

Scott said...

You took the words right out of my mouth Chris!

Charles, you wrote:

'Well my indigenous culture is Pakeha'

Pakeha have a fascinating history, but are they a distinct people with their own culture? What does it consist of?

I tend to think that an essential part of Pakeha identity comes from the fact that we are not indigenous, that we don't feel fully at home here, that we look for many of our models of thought and behaviour and also for our symbolism to the Old World. And where the sense of Pakeha as an independent people does exist, I think it comes not from cooperation with Maori but from situations where we have been in conflict with Maori. The New Zealand Wars, for instance, aided in the growth of a pan-settler, pan-provincial identity, and also helped estrange settlers somewhat from Britain, which wasn't as helpful in the anti-Maori cause as Auckland and Wellington would have liked.

Maori national identity, which is a good deal more defined, also comes out of conflict with Pakeha. Without the alienation of land to the settlers the King Movement would never have arisen, for instance.

RedLogix said...

I'd suggest that one place to look for a unique 'indigenous Pakeha culture' is among the tramping, climbing and hunting community in this country.

We have our own unique history, traditions and a deep connection to the land ... the mountain ranges most especially.

The tramper in me is rather drawn to the Hobbit narrative. Most stories can be boiled down to "going on a journey" or "a stranger comes to town". Tolkein exploited this to the limit, in a way that anyone whose undertaken a tramp of more than a few days duration immediately recognises.

Such journeys are inherently ambiguous, the unknown geography around the next corner which pulls us on, and the unknowns we uncover in our own psyche which push us into self-discovery. A tramper may have a map, the route well-trodden, but the weather and season, the terrain underfoot remain unpredictable. At the same time our own physical and emotional frailties are limits as well.

Tolkein's generation had been through an even more treacherous trek; the trenches of WW1. Leaving their farms, villages and towns as naive young men, they faced an incomprehensible terror and returned bowed, bitter and often broken. Yes they were heroes in public, in private they barely recognised themselves anymore.

Many of the first trampers in the 1920's were men seeking a refuge from the commercial, banal world of daily life ... in order to find the solitude, empathetic companionship and space to become themselves again. They started a culture which has been passed through generations since.

Conversations over mugs of tea, the rattle of wind or rain on a tin roof, the flicker of fire and burner have been the background to many a heartfelt exchange, of hopes amd plans, of how to fix the world, of how both personal responsibility merges seamlessly with being a party which greater than the sum of it's parts.

Rightly or wrongly it's why I still perceive Jim Bloger and Helen Clark as authentic New Zealanders ... where the current crew are not. For certain I'm not claiming that trampers and their fellows are the sole and exclusive claimants to 'indigenous Pakeha culture', but they must surely be a rich vein of it.

peterpeasant said...

Are you sure "Forgotten Silver" was Jacksons?

Methinks Costa Botes had more to do with that.

Sorry to cast a slur on your segue.

Chris Trotter said...

A joint venture, certainly, Mr Peasant. But one I'm sure Sir Peter took much away from in terms of understanding the maleability of reality.

Anonymous said...

Its quite simple really.

Our governments and opinion leaders buy into any cargo cult going.

It's what happens when you are always on the lookout for a quick fix solution to everything and don't like thinking very much.

Scott said...

Surely though the tramping and mountaineering culture is a transplant from Britain, where there is such a long tradition of walking for recreation, and where walkers have fought for and won access to large areas of the countryside? The brilliant Robert Macfarlane's new book The Old Ways is a celebration of this tradition.

It is perhaps significant that the tramping and climbing culture took off most spectacularly in Canterbury, the most English part of New Zealand. John Pascoe's classic book Unclimbed New Zealand
presents his native Canterbury as almost a land apart, back in the '20s and '30s.

I think the famous cultural nationalism of the '30s and '40s, which we find in the 'empty land' paintings of McCahon and poems of Brasch and Curnow, is also a very South Island phenomenon. We don't find the same vision of New Zealand in the work of Aucklanders of the same period.

When I gave a talk about the cultural confusions of Pakeha Kiwis in Tonga a couple of months ago, I suggested that we might possibly be able to find a way out of the unsatisfactory choice between a half-formed national identity and a pseudo-Britishness by embracing the great Epeli Hau'ofa's notion of a common Oceanian identity:
(sorry for the blatant self-advertisement Chris...)

Chris Trotter said...

It's not just a South Island phenomenon, Scott. I think it's more accurate to say that it's Auckland vs the planned settlements of New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin.

The planned communities came with a vision - part religious, part political, part economic.

Auckland was born and remains trapped in a crass commercial spirit of jimcrack chicanery, dirty dealing, political corruption and larcenous speculation. It has always been the cuckoo in New Zealand's nest.

Charles said...

Jesus, I will have to improve at this game with the erudite entries from Scott then Redlogix.
It is hard for the majority culture here to promote itself without sounding more colonially British than we are now, after 180 years in the making in our land. We are of this land now and love it, the land and our ways. That often expresses itself in our love of outdoor adventure and travel. Overseas too, by sail, by steam by air, sometimes exploring our origins, and yes the Tolkien world appeals greatly to our culture. It is a natural fit. Except for the latter we share love of this land, travel and adventure with Maori, and then there is war. We share a bent for that too. How eager Pakeha and Maori of 100 and of 70 years ago (and now even) were to go off on war adventures. We have plenty in common today, but there was always some from the start. Today we often share relatives, alive and dead yet still there is this problem Chris often comes back to in his writings, which exercises me too: Pakeha have not equally taken to Maori culture and ways and language, yet Maori have always adapted and assimilated to the extent that as I say, almost all Maori are culturally Pakeha too. Many are fully bicultural. Few Pakeha are or want to be. We are only shallowly interested and we try mostly to be polite but really at the end of the day things Maori do not fully resonate with us. This is not something we need to justify I think, as isn't it true of most cultures that are dominant and successful. Why would they take on the ways of less successful cultures? It has always been this way. So those who feel NZ should become more Maori or Polynesian are going to be disappointed I believe. Perhaps most cultures only appeal to those born in them whereas Pakeha culture, being a Western culture, like (damnit) American culture can appeal to anyone? I don't know, but sorry I am not going to apologise for being uninterested in other cultures, even ones right next door. I can't help it and it is culturally insensitive to try and make me. So there!

Victor said...

The heritage of Mother England (or, more broadly, of Mother Britannia) undoubtedly looms large in Pakeha New Zealand’s cultural, biological and institutional DNA.

But it’s the heritage not of a bucolic, imaginary fairyland cum state-sponsored branding strategy but of a real England; the creation of at least fifteen hundred years of recorded history, replete with social and political conflicts, industrial growth, technological innovation, laws, ideas, music, poetry and strangely resilient social mores and purchasing patterns (c.f. real estate).

This should be a cause neither for overweening pride nor for great shame. We are all what we are, whatever that might be. Some of this is the creation of our own and recent generations. And some of it has older roots. To understand ourselves and make the best of our circumstances, we need to recognise the work of all the generations that have gone before and the impact they’ve had on our society, for both good and ill.

To my mind, modern New Zealanders have a tendency to exagerrate the differences between themselves and the Brits. After all, even now, Kiwis tend to be less foreign to most Brits than are the people just across the Channel and the North Sea from them.

Yet, whilst the differences wrought by cultural evolution work comparatively slowly, demographic change, such as we are now experiencing, is likely to speed up the process significantly. In a few decades, we are likely to be both less residually British and less quintessentially Kiwi, in terms of how we would currently understand these terms.

This, in itself, should not be cause for overwhelming regret. Cultures are the product of History .......and History has a renowned tendency to move on!

But the inevitability of change makes it all the more essential for us to identify and cherish such values from within our traditions, as might have significance for any good society, whatever its cultural or ancestral mix might be.

Undoubtedly, some of these values had their genesis in these islands, both before and subsequent to mass Anglo-Celtic immigration. But, equally obviously, other of these values arrived here with those very immigrants.

Brendon said...

Auckland won the 'war' versus the planned settlements. Provincialism was abolished because Auckland and New Plymouth were brought off by cheap Maori Land and big spending British batalions. Wellington was rewarded with capital status. The others were outvoted. Otago gold paid for the newly centralised New Zealand.

Some of those Provinces had a vision of more than agricultural economic success. Canterbury for instance had two Universities. One to promote agricultural growth, the second to promote a commercial and industrial vision.

What sort of people would we be if the planned settlements hadn't lost?

Tiger Mountain said...

Me, I reckon “Hobbit Love” it is part of the twisted nationalism and parochialism that sees young people flocking to ANZAC day and Gallipoli and cry during Dave Dobbyn songs. A default kiwism if you like that does not reflect reality.

John Key has been “storming the shire” for years now and the hobbit fanciers do not seem to notice or care. Official documents and postal items are now stamped with a fantasy image, far out man.

So look out citizen if you are not at the default setting (we love you Lord Jackson) as unionists have already discovered.

uke said...

If there is a NZ birthplace of tramping (as distinct from mountaineering) it would more likely be Wellington.

The first tramping clubs in the NZ were set up in Wellington, including The Tararua Tramping Club founded in 1919. This was partly a matter of geography, the Tararua and Rimutaka Ranges being located so close to the city.

While Canterbury is definitely the home of NZ mountainerring - for obvious reasons - I'm sure even John Pascoe (later a member of the TTC) would agree that organised tramping started in Wellington.

Victor said...


Most of the Kiwis I know neither tramp, climb nor hunt. These activities are hardly therefore emblematic marks of national identity.

Moreover, we'd be a very sorry lot if one of the characteristics that defined us was taking pleasure in the killing of other creatures.