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This report is taken from PN Review 103, Volume 21 Number 5, May - June 1995.

Theory: Further Excursions and Alarms John Needham

Sydney, September '94. A brilliant spring morning; through the window I can see the big ferries sliding in and out of Circular Quay and the sun is already standing up over the great shell-cluster of the opera house. A young man with a shaved head and a pleasantly harsh Sydney voice is talking about the Russian avant-garde painters of 1917. He is busy rejecting the view that their modernist ideas about art naturally drew them towards the autocratic end of the political spectrum after the revolution. I ought to be paying more attention. This afternoon my own paper will argue that post-modernist writers, at any rate, accustomed to the manipulation of what they regard as arbitrary signs, are indeed that much more likely to approve the exercise of arbitrary power. But the speaker's words echo a little amongst the marble pillars of the conference hall and my mind is only half drawn into their web; the other half strays out along the busy waterfront. As I lose the thread, I begin to doubt my own conviction that signs, so far from being arbitrary impositions on an inscrutable reality, follow from things that actually go on in the world. I take off my glasses and tum down my hearing aids - one of my routine procedures for semantic testing. My reality immediately turns vague and soundless, like underwater, and evidently no words I choose to impose could materially alter this; if they could I wouldn't need all this sensory technology. ...


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