Category Archives: brief notes

on hiatus.

guerrilla semiotics (GS) is a theatre blog documenting, remembering, ten years in Australian theatre. Contained here are the reviews, published and unpublished, formally tidy and formally experimental, created by me, Jana Perković, between 2006-2016.

This decade, which I believe will be remembered as one of the most important decades in Melbourne theatre, both for theatre-making and its criticism, deserves not to be forgotten, not to disappear in the internet debris. I have the luxury of coding knowledge, and will be able to keep this small archive of my writings in a tidy, organised state, for some time to come.

There are many reasons why GS has to be discontinued: some are profoundly personal, others are rigorously professional, and some are an odd mixture of both. In 2017, I have had a series of conversations, with Alison Croggon, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Andrew Fuhrmann, Alex Griffin, Declan Greene, and Bek Berger, all running along the exact same lines. Each time, we queried each other on our mutual feeling that something special to us has ended, or changed, that a particular ecology delicately holding us all together has dispersed. That it was time.


I started writing about theatre in 2006. I had just moved to Melbourne from Europe, and I found familiarity in theatre: here I found cultural open-mindedness, a sense of joy, intellectual rigour and moral honesty, while the rest of John Howard’s Australia perplexed me with its lack of all of the above.

Theatre was always my side thing, but it is a beloved side thing, and over these ten years it has given me a lot more than I had hoped for: numerous close friends, extraordinary experiences, and the opportunity to see some good things through.

Between 2006 and 2016, I did my best to play a good role in this delicate ecology. Carl Nilsson-Polias (of Hayloft Project) and I built the VCA student publication Spark Online into a theatre portal, in a concerted effort to bring together theatre bloggers around Australia. I was a member of Green Room Awards from 2011-2015, at a time when live art appeared in Melbourne, and we spent considerable time developing a local language suitable to this form. Carl and I created the first serious website for Green Room Awards, paving one small paver in its legitimisation as a Victorian theatre institution. I served on Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Counsel from 2013-2015. From 2012 until 2015, I was Literary Manager at MKA Theatre of New Writing, where I read hundreds of Australian bad plays, discussed them in-depth with Glyn Roberts, and finally wrote an essay about them for Australian Script Centre. I became a lecturer at the highly regarded Theatre Department at VCA, where for four years now I’ve been allowed to torture up-and-coming theatre-makers with both theatre theory and philosophy. I helped develop Dancehouse Diary for Dancehouse Melbourne, which has easily become one of the most important publications on contemporary dance in Australia. Within MKA, we even made an effort to rethink playtext publishing. These have all been wonderful experiences.

Most importantly, however, a ton of work went into creating and supporting good criticism. During these years, I wrote for RealTime, The Guardian, The Crikey, New Matilda, TimeOut, The Conversation, as well as internationally, for Exeunt, Tanzconnexions. I tried to write good criticism in all these places, but GS was always the place where I had the space and time to be really considered, as well as formally brave. I wrote in-depth about independent artists whose work, I thought, deserved considered reflection. I challenged and pushed other independent critics to be more formally experimental, and was in turn pushed by them.

We will remember 2006-2016 for its phenomenal independent theatre, but I do hope we also remember it for its phenomenal independent criticism. In this pocket of self-published long-form blogs, free of editorial control but full of critical dialogue, between the insular safety of theatre and the brutal parochialism of the mainstream Australian culture, a vast number and variety of converging voices gave rise to formal and thematic experimentation that, I think, was unprecedented in the performing arts. We did good things. We wrote dot-point reviews, Socratic reviews, we wrote rants, we wrote theatre criticism that referenced Super Mario. Ming-Zhu Hii and Lee Lewis led some early conversations on race in Australian arts, and Augusta Supple opened up the overdue conversation about gender; the fruits of these efforts will be felt for some time to come. In Spark Online, Carl and I commissioned experimental criticism before experimental non-fiction was a thing. Some of Andrew Fuhrmann’s early, most radical writing has survived only on my server, pulled in by Spark’s early use of RSS (and how strange to think that RSS is now outdated technology). I started writing a slightly insane column for The Lifted Brow, that mixed serious theatre criticism with narrative fiction. And in 2014, fed up by the lack of long-form conversations with artists, I created Audiostage so that we could have deep thoughts about theatre practice for a whole hour uninterrupted, thus creating one of the first theatre podcasts in the world. We really did well. In the conversations I’ve had this year, it was repeatedly said that the art of these years was as rigorous as its criticism. And more than one person repeated Michael Kantor’s words: “We’re all only really making work in order to please Alison [Croggon],” who has over these years become not just a role-model, but one of my dearest friends.

In between everything, I fell in love in immersive theatre performances, theatre zombies attacked me and Declan Greene in Berlin, my face was on very large MKA posters, I had Hayloft Project meetings at my house, and dinners with Black Lung on the roof of their possibly-squatted house. I saw Zoe Croggon’s very first collages chez Croggon-Keene’s, made gnocchi for all the theatre critics in Melbourne, workshopped games with Rob Reid and Sayra, drank till dawn with Steven Armstrong in the Malthouse forecourt, sat in James Waites’ living room reading through the clippings of his writings, and held Andrew Fuhrmann’s newborn baby. These, too, have been wonderful experiences. And if there is anything I have understood about this decade of art and arguing, it is that the only thing we can carry into the future – theatre being as ephemeral as life itself – is precisely our friendships, our camaraderie, our shared pride in having made something special together.

My one regret is those artists whose work I’ve never found the time to write about in a considered fashion – I owe an essay to Zoey Dawson, at the very least. Then there are all those things I didn’t write about, out of politeness – I couldn’t find a way to talk about being an ethnic woman in a culture often unaware of the depth of its racism, sexism, and cultural imperialism. If there is one change in independent culture that I love, it is that I no longer feel like the one wog voice in a sea of oblivious white.

That aside, however, I feel very creatively satisfied, and proud of everything we have done. I think history will be very kind to us all. It didn’t always seem like it, but we were a good team.


The convergence of many delicate accidents that made this decade possible has dispersed again. A blog, which once offered editorial freedom, is now something to monetize. The wonderful community-building potential of This Thing Called The Internet has become a criss-crossing web of self-promotional channels. With the panopticon of social media has come a self-consciousness we didn’t quite have when we were little, and increasingly I speak to young people for whom Sisters Grimm are ancient, and Hayloft Project positively mythological.

It’s important not to fall into the same trap as those who regret not investing in Apple in the 1980s: new risky ventures are as present now as they were then, they just look different. The closing of one theatre world doesn’t mean that there aren’t artists who continue to make beautiful work: Adena Jacobs’ Fraught Outfit, Penny Harpham, the various members of post, The Rabble, a whole up-and-coming generation of black voices. And something new might be starting over at Witness. So let’s clear the old from the deck, for the new.

Audio Stage, e.3, ep.3: Bojana Cvejic, and some thoughts


Bojana Cvejić has long been one of my intellectual idols, a dramaturg and performance scholar whose books, articles, and lectures show one of the most exemplary engagements with philosophy in the performing arts. Together with that other Bojana (Kunst), Cvejić thinks deeply, rigorously, and uncompromisingly about contemporary dance as a system, not merely of signification, but of production; of social relationships, modes of authorship, modes of creative and intellectual labour, modes of being, modes of citizenship -in her analysis, all are produced and reproduced in the arts just like they are would be on the factory floor. Bojana Cvejić’s enormous mind handles it all simultaneously, the ethical and the aesthetic and the pragmatic and the ideological. Reading her is always a pleasure. Speaking with her was momentuous.

“To affirm another politics of authorship means to control the conditions in which value is produced.”

What makes Cvejić particularly beautiful to listen is that she is not one of those thinkers who will throw a lot of ideas in the air as equally weighted possibilities, which cheapens them even when they have been thought through rigorously. Cvejić asserts, posits answers. Her thoughts form slowly and carefully and accurately, and listening to her is like watching a very large edifice – say, a bridge – being built from the bottom up, thought by careful thought, until an entire perspective on the world has sprung up.

“Artists… lack political education. I think it’s unclear to everyone what it means to be a citizen – this sense of belonging, of entitlement, of claiming, how one could be part of decision-making.”

In this conversation, which is so precious to me, Bojana charts the path that contemporary dance, as well as many kinds of participatory performance, have traversed since Bel and Le Roy’s experiments in the late 1990s, from collective authorship to participation and immersion. And this sentence keeps resounding in my mind: “I think it’s unclear to everyone what it means to be a citizen”.

Of all the art forms, theatre is singular in how closely it is related to participatory democracy, and yet how deeply, on the ground, it is immersed in what we might, for a lack of better word, term ‘narcissism’. There was a time when participatory performance offered the dream of restoring to theatre that dimension of political participation, that sense of agora; of us all coming together as people with rights, agency, ethics. To those of us interested in what it means to come together in real space, those of us who know the work of Brecht, Piscator, Boal, there was a sense that theatre was remembering its own political agency. And I still believe that theatre can play that role (as does Bojana, I believe): there have been performances recently, like Hot Brown Honey, like Zoe Coombs-Marr’s Trigger Warning, like Elbow Room’s We Get It, that left such a trail of electricity behind them: we were there, together, and something was happening in the room. At its finest, there is still immersive performance such as Miguel Gutierrez’ Deep Aerobics, which harnesses our being-there-together to make us angry and sad and armed for political change. But too often, theatre invites us to an evening of self-indulgence; of forgetting, rather than engaging, with the world.

The shift between coming together in public for a protest, and coming together for a flash mob – and a flash mob, it bears repeating, exists mainly on social media afterwards – that is the shift that Bojana talks about. Could it be that the immense precarity of our lives, the precarity of our jobs, our housing, our social safety nets, and our relationships, results in a kind of collective nervous breakdown, in which the selfie, the public performance of the self, is genuinely confused for personal agency? I don’t know. But between the extremes of performance where participation is measured in selfie numbers, and the aloof self-absorption of the solo, there is a hypothetical, if rarely utilised, middle ground, in which performance could still be a space of collective agency.

This is what we talk about today.


I started Audio Stage because so often our conversations, in the arts, remain short and snappy and commercial: we put on our best faces to sell our shows, and we sell it as entertainment and as inoffensive and as fun, fun above everything. And yet, we are not doing justice to Australian art when we do so. We are not doing justice to the personal, political, moral, and imaginative quests that our artists are actually undertaking. To give an artist a large space, to let them speak about what they do and how with a greater grounding in our society – that is why these long conversations happen.
We hope you enjoy them.

Discussed in this episode:
Marx, dance in museums, who authors dance?, Xavier Le Roy’s early works, creating new values, dancers associated with certain choreographers – are they ‘damaged goods’?, collaboration vs collectivity, Marcel Mauss and social choreography, “I’ve done Vietnam, I’ve done the Paris Ballet Conservatory, I’ve done Wall St.”, the high-paying executive who gives it all up to find out who he is, ‘selfie-expression’, choreography as a cottage industry, YouTube, and remember when we used to think we could decide to make a viral video?

Listen to the episode:

You can subscribe to Audio Stage in iTunes, find us on Facebook, or listen on the official website.


Announcing: Iliads


a performance of books 1-4 of The Iliad

conceived + directed by Ben Speth

with Nana Biluš Abaffy, Natalie Abbott,

Sarah Aiken, Rebecca Jensen, Shelley

Lasica, Maud Léger, Kevin Lo,

Bagryana Popov, Philipa Rothfield,

Greg Zuccolo

February 12-14 7-11pm

36 Moreland St. Footscray

$20/15 including food + drink (cash at the door)

bookings + Info 9687 7173

limited seating – bookings advised *

iliads e-flyer

This just arrived into my inbox. It involves some of my favourite theatre-makers in Australia, so please go.

Next Wave notes


Briefly, because I am immensely looking forward to this sleep-longer-than-five-hours I am just about to have: Next Wave is great. I cannot write too much, because, unfortunately, I have promised words to other people (and the blog will have to wait for now).

But I thought it would be worth saying, important to say, that Blak Wave is one of the most important, and good, and meaningful things I’ve witnessed in Australia in such a long time. It requires an essay all of its own. Each event I’ve been to has been a healing experience, requiring words I do not have so close to it, and so late at night. And that Madonna Arms by I’m Trying To Kiss You is the best piece of Australian writing I’ve seen staged in a very, very long time (years!). And that I saw something very beautiful tonight at White Face, something I’d like to have a conversation about.

And I am yet about to go to Overworld, but Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen have blazed a huge trail already in young contemporary dance in Melbourne, and I am extremely excited. As I am about the extremely well reviewed Terminal (disclaimer: the makers of these two works and I used to all live together in Brunswick East, so I may be terribly partial). And then there is Natalie Abbott’s MAXIMUM. From where I am standing, it looks like the first outlines of the future of dance in Australia.

And finally, the second edition of Kids Killing Kids. (Again, a disclaimer: KKK is affiliated with MKA, and I am also affiliated with MKA.) It is a work which formally does not depart in any way from that classical form of documentary performance that NSW exports around Australia and the world (certainly there’s a name for the genre by now?), but it is still an important, I think, work, because of its thematic concerns, because it asks questions that we are usually too polite, or too scared, to ask.

I am not allowed to say much more here, so I am just making an invitation. Come.


Australian Script Centre has kicked off a new series of long-form essays on the state of the Australian theatre (playwrighting, but not just). The inaugural essay has just been published: it is the inimitable Alison Croggon, writing on the state of theatre criticism in Australia. The essay is long, exhaustive, and superb, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Meanwhile, one of the young and promising critics that Alison singles out for praise in the above essay, Jane Howard, has just launched a personal newsletter. (I must say I’m not sure how to link to something that exists via email, so I am linking to her blog announcement thereof, which is perhaps a bit lame.) Jane is in Melbourne to write about about Next Wave, the biennial festival of emerging artists that explicitly nurtures experimental work. From what I’ve read so far of Jane’s newsletter, it is as experimental and interesting as the festival itself. I also highly recommend.

Next Wave has also started, of course. I wish I had the time to engage in either long-form or experimental criticism, or both, of the many, many works that will be showing in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, between the two subjects I am teaching, and the two long commissions I need to finish, I feel like I’ll be lucky if I find time to tweet about them. Many things are going to be published in reputable media, of course – including my review of Next Wave – but with a bit of a delay. Meanwhile, enjoy Jane and Alison’s writings.

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My body – after #1000thLIVE

From 5am till 11am, on 22 Mrach 2014 (Saturday/Sunday), I live-blogged about the live streaming of Forced Entertainment’s ‘And on the Thousandth Night…’ here:

The following was written just after the performahce finished, thus not making the conceptual cut. It’s not a review, not a reflection, it’s live thought, and so it only makes sense to me to post it straight away, close to the time of writing.


My body is hungry. I have drunk two pots of tea and peed dozens of times. I was extremely sleepy for twenty out of the last thirty minutes – but not the last ten. My body is coming out of a shock, like a long flight, like meditation, like exercise. I have already forgotten what happened to it, I can only feel the physical imprint of the experience.

Durational always gets the easiest in the last hour, because it is no longer taken for granted. I am alert because I want to see the end. And yet I always miss the exact moment somehow: I blink, it’s gone. Roll credits, applause.

Is this against our rules? Not if we can agree that the performance ends only when we stop thinking about it, as half of that famous phrase goes. I wish there was a ritual of exit from the theatre, like there is one for entrance. If we could be directed towards the ritual of debrief.

What was it? Perhaps up to… five hundred?, a thousand?… unfinished stories in a row. Themes and variations, like jazz: dead children, monkeys, kings. Remember the orgasm shop?

It’s not just jazz that feels like this. Techno parties feel like this. One remembers them in a haze: between hour X and hour Y it all came together really well.

I really wanted to hear more about curled sandwiches sitting in the window at 5 to 5, knowing they would be thrown in the bin at 5pm, when the cafe closed.

Vale James Waites

James Waites passed away when I was on my way to Sydney, two weeks ago. When I left Melbourne, he was still alive – in the sense that we didn’t know yet that he wasn’t – and by the time I had arrived in Sydney, the news of his death had become known. The message I sent him on Facebook went from being the most normal thing, to something obscene.

Today at 3pm, in NSW there will be a memorial for James Waites, organised by the incredible Augusta Supple, who has tended to the entire business of concluding James’s life after his death: wrapping unimportant things up and securing the preservation of the important ones. Augusta has been incredible throughout this, and I hope that we will all be blessed with a friend like her when our time comes.

I called Augusta when I realised what had happened, and asked if there was anything I could do; I was in Sydney, after all. She said: “Maybe you can write a little something on your blog. James thought so highly of you. He loved the time when you guys ran Spark Online, he really saw in it the future of criticism. It was a great time for him: he felt he was a part of a community of critics. He saw you as this brave young critic, a young gun, snapping at the heels of Alison Croggon, keeping her honest, the way he thought of himself as snapping at the heels of Harry Kippax, keeping him honest.”

It took me a really long time to write anything about James that felt in any way worthy of him. Or of my sadness. It is the day of his memorial, and I still haven’t managed to write anything I’m not ashamed of. I’m writing this hoping the words won’t let me down, because it would be so unworthy of James to be late to his memorial.

I met James through his blog. I hadn’t known of him, but older critics did. When I met him in Sydney – and I met him many times, because, for a short period of time in 2008-2010, I used to go to Sydney a lot – I was always struck by just how generous he was. James was a kind of mentor to me, because, even though we lived in different cities, I got so much from him: he was generous with his time, with his knowledge of theatre, his knowledge of theatre history, his knowledge of people. I sat in his beautiful small apartment near Belvoir, and leafed through book after book of newspaper clippings, photographs, essays, while James would tell me stories. I helped him with his blog, and he would mention me on it. We discussed theatre across our respective blogs – although less and less, the less time I had to come to Sydney.

James is one of those critics with whom I never disagreed. Everyone has those: people we respect so much that, even when we cannot see what they see, cannot feel what they feel, we wish we could, because it seems like so much fun, like such a great experience. He had a fantastic ability to let himself be swept along by art: and when he couldn’t do it, because the art was a bit shit, you could hear the disappointment in his voice. ‘Why is this not better?’, he seemed to demand, ‘we could be having such a great time right now!’

Blog, I think, was a great medium for James, because he could take his time: to agree and disagree with the artist, with himself, to make lovely little jokes about ‘Glitter and Fluffy’, say (this will forever be my favourite thing James ever wrote), to expand on what he really cared about, without the constraints of the newspaper format to stay on topic. James knew the topic well enough not to have to stick to it.

And now I am stuck in a world in which a piece is inexplicably missing, like that chunk of island in Norway, which I saw a couple of days ago and agreed with completely.

I really loved James. I am so fucking sad he’s gone. I am so fucking sad that I just missed the opportunity to see him. It would have been the first time in two or three years. Maybe, just maybe, some other amazing project would have been cooked up between us, and James would have felt like hanging around a bit longer. But of course we all think that, don’t we?

I am in tears while I’m writing this, and I’d like to think that James would like the honest human drama of it all.

On Petra von Kant and disgruntled bitching

A particularly mean review of Gary Abrahams’ production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Byron Bache for Herald Sun inspired a response from Daniel Clarke, of Theatre Works, to the Sun, followed by a response from the Herald sun arts editor, Sally Bennett.


I just felt there was a lack of respect for the artists and independent theatre as a whole. Sensationalist remarks undermine the value of the review. You can be critical of something but you’ve also got to be accurate and respectful. There is another way of talking about someone’s emotional range without comparing them to a Hills hoist. There are other ways of talking about people without reducing them to an object.


I am not required to get it. You are required to explain it to me, to connect with me, so that I do get it and, hopefully, have the kind of experience that makes me seek you out again.

Somewhere down the rabbit hole of Facebook, a discussion happened, and I wrote something that I will soon lose if I don’t file it here, on these pages. So here it is, my two cents:

I think reviews such as the one above are important to have, but not for reasons stated by Bache. They are important for a few reasons.

1) Theatre criticism is emotional labour. We all try to remain objective, and should be mostly objective, but experiencing art involves emotions, and every so often one is swayed by great ecstasy or dismay, and sometimes this emotion outweighs the objective judgement enough to fill the whole review. What these reviews then lose in information, they gain in emotional, erm, information. Of course, no critic should write only from emotion. But to sanction a critic from having the occasional emotional outburst is both to tell them to rein in their emotional openness to the art – openness to both profound insight and irritation – and to deny that, if art has the power to provoke deep emotions, we must accept that deep annoyance is on that spectrum.

2) Criticism is not in-house feedback, and not just audience guidelines, but forms part of that dialogue we call culture. As such, it has the responsibilities of being both truthful, non-deceptive, non-navel-gazing and engaging. For criticism to do its purpose, it really must be interesting, on top of being non-incorrect. The number of comments here, the follow-up article in The Herald Sun, and the fact that multiple people have forwarded me this review, all signal to me that this review has succeeded in being interesting. Since a few people forwarded it to me because they felt their experience of the production validated by this review means it is not entirely untruthful or deceptive. And if we get proof of non-theatre-goers reading it and enjoying it, then it is non-navel-gazing, is bringing theatre to the attention of the wider audience, and is ultimately good for us all.

3) The reason why these reviews are so popular to read is because their emotional momentum propels the reader through (I think), and the purity of the emotion gives them a unifying focus that reviews otherwise often lack.

4) Ultimately, as in everything, we can only objectively engage with the content, not the tone of the review. If the review is lying/incorrect, that is what discredits it. The emotional content makes it a good read. It also gives us information as to how at least one person felt the experience. But to debate with this review must start with debating the accusations/critique, otherwise we are not debating, we are silencing.

If I were to engage with the tone of this review, which I would in good faith describe as disgruntled bitching, I think the most interesting thing to note would be how one deals with the ongoing emotional toil of going to the theatre and having to have deep affective responses for money. It’s a question worth asking, because a critic – a good critic – is neither an unfaltering cheerleader nor a merciless marker of essays and assigner of points. A critic, like a teacher, a psychotherapist, or a dramaturg, comes to their work invested, prepared to give to the work, to the experience, but with the added difficulty of then having to turn their emotional response into constructive, coherent, articulated feedback – to other audience members and to the artists. This is hard work. It requires both emotional openness and a preparedness to then dissect one’s own emotional response. Imagine if prostitutes gave a feedback session afterwards, because it is a little bit like that. And not the other way around, because critics come into the theatre building without an agenda, without a plan.

Emotional labour is labour that cannot be done with a closed heart, that requires an empathetic – or at least sympathetic – response, and this emotional component to the work is not only unpaid, it often marks the whole job as unworthy of being paid much, because our culture sees emotions as a mark of femininity, thus lesser in value. (Typical forms of emotional labour are caring jobs (aged care, nursing, child care, teaching) and hospitality and other service jobs.) The disgruntled bitching is an interesting response to a work of art, because it’s both authentic, and stronger than forgetting about the unpleasant experience, but is also, to some extent, self-defensive. The same way in which hospitality workers tell jokes about awful customers, secretaries share stories of bosses who harass them, the way my co-workers, when I worked in a restaurant with a terrible boss prone to fits of rage, made cruel jokes about the man who paid us. It is self-defensive because how else does one process an unpleasant experience? By despairing? By quitting the work? By walking out? I sometimes wonder how theatre practitioners – plenty of whom I have witnessed bitching disparagingly about artworks – understand critics. As full human beings? Or merely as vessels of other people’s humanity?

Of course there are critics who don’t get it. Even worse, there are critics who don’t try to get it, critics happy enough to dismiss entire genres, aesthetic families and art forms because it’s not their thing, critics who don’t read up on the work and then complain of its opaqueness, and I think they don’t do their work properly and are poor critics. But this is a sin of another kind: it is lack of interest in, and openness to, work. To be upset and disgruntled at the end of a theatre show is something else entirely: it is openness that backfired, openness that felt unpleasant.

And I challenge theatre-makers everywhere: would you like a racist to see a work that condemns racism? How do you expect the racist person to react? How do you imagine this encounter? Am I the only one, seriously the only one, who sees disgruntlement as fundamental to one’s encounter with art?

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Public Discourse Analysis Series: #02 the tone argument (Andrew Bolt, blog; Richard Hinds, SMH)

#02: Only one notch above blatantly reducing the argument to the person (argumentum ad hominem, dealt with in the first installment of the series) is reducing the argument to its tone.

This works by way of taking an indefinite break from the actual argument, and saying: you might be right, but your tone is so problematic that we cannot move on until we have sorted out the question your tone.

In practice, this argument is most often used when a person makes a statement about some ongoing injustice being committed against a minority voice, and, in the lack of empirical data, talks about their own personal experience (‘So and so many of my friends were raped’ / ‘I was raped’ / ‘My family was locked up in detention’ / ‘I have experienced subtle racism’, etc). The less likely the experience is to be normally discussed among, shall we say, the majority population, the more likely it is to be perceived as somehow inappropriate in tone. Anything concerning menstruation, for example, might be shot down on tone before it even makes its point. Derailing for Dummies, for example, calls it ‘derailing using emotion’, and recognises three common forms:

– You’re Being Overemotional
– You’re Just Oversensitive
– You’re Taking Things Too Personally.

These are the ways in which it plays out for particularly marginalised voices talking about their own discrimination. But, theoretically, anyone is vulnerable to the argument of tone, because every voice has a tone. The offending tone may be: shrill, aggressive, impolite, rude, hurtful, offensive, offensive to a third party, out of line, too emotional, too scholarly, too frivolous, humourless…

Paul Graham explains the fallacy of the argument thus:

Though better than attacking the author, this is still a weak form of disagreement. It matters much more whether the author is wrong or right than what his tone is. Especially since tone is so hard to judge. Someone who has a chip on their shoulder about some topic might be offended by a tone that to other readers seemed neutral.

So if the worst thing you can say about something is to criticize its tone, you’re not saying much. Is the author flippant, but correct? Better that than grave and wrong. And if the author is incorrect somewhere, say where.

The only way to deal with the argument of tone is to doggedly focus on the argument, and resist all bait. However, what usually happens is that the attacked speaker responds to the argument of tone by something like ‘what about YOUR tone, dude?’, to which the response is ‘WHOA WHOA WHOA!’, and the argument might then spend a hundred years arguing about who is the worst offender of tone, completely forgetting the original subject of the discussion.

Let’s look now at one very emotional issue, that of racism, and how it plays out in the public sphere. Watch how Andrew Bolt’s blog masterfully turns a question of racism into a question of tone, which is then promptly picked up and continued in the comments section:


Full article: Andrew Bolt: Shame on the witchhunters, May 29, 2013.

However, this is an argument that spans political divisions. There is no need to analyse the full article, because it is already quoted in Bolt’s text. However, look how it sets out the a counter-argument to Bolt:


The most interesting thing, however, is the way this argument continues in the comments of SMH, where an entire sub-argument develops over the ‘proper tonal response’ to racism. By the end of the comments, the transformation of the argument is complete.


Full article: Richard Hinds, Goodes’ Outstretched Hand Still Can’t Reach Lunatic Fringe, 28 May, 2013. + comments.

Disclaimer: all copyrighted material dealt with fairly, for the purposes of criticism, as described under The Copyright Act, Fair Dealing (G079v06). If you have an objection, please let me know at jana dot perkovic at gmail dot com, I am more than happy to discuss matters amicably.


Public Discourse Analysis Series: #01 Personalising the Debate (Clementine Ford, Daily Life)

#01: The tendency to turn the disagreement of two arguments into disagreement between two people holding those arguments, done by way of argumenta ad hominem & ad personam. A person who makes an argument is attacked for their other views, other behaviour, inconsistency between current and previous views, general bias, or general conduct.

Helpful definitions (my source was Schopenhauer):
– ARGUMENTUM AD REM: ‘the claim is wrong because it is internally illogical, factually incorrect, unfounded on evidence, etc’
– ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINEM: ‘the claim is wrong because the speaker has previously made other claims incompatible with this one, or has engaged in behaviour incompatible with the substance of the claim’ (there is a disagreement between the substance of the claim and the speaker’s general conduct/beliefs)
– ARGUMENTUM AD PERSONAM (also known as ‘abusive ad hominem‘): ‘the claim is wrong because the speaker is an idiot’

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