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Stark raven Barnaby Joyce

By Brian Matthews - posted Thursday, 25 February 2010

What with holidays and the new year you've probably dropped behind with your reading of 1001 Physics Problems You Should Review Before You Die. In which case you won't have come across University of Oregon theoretical nuclear physicist Amit Goswami's rather sensational reaction to his understanding of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

This famous principle states that some pairs of physical properties cannot be precisely known. Take, for example, the position and the momentum of a particle: you can't measure both simultaneously. The more you observe about its position the less you'll be able to establish about its momentum, and vice versa.

Goswami, speculating that the very act of observing activates the uncertainty principle, suggests that there could be no reality existing independently of one's own consciousness as an observer. I see it - therefore it is. My observing creates the real.


One prominent person who must have kept up with these important theoretical questions is Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey. In a recent television interview he emphasised that Barnaby Joyce was “real” and that Kevin Rudd and Lindsay Tanner were “not real”.

Beyond repeating this assertion with growing and visible irritation, Hockey did not elaborate, but his uncharacteristically frowning features clearly revealed that when it came to Rudd and Tanner, and probably other Labor luminaries, he was taking an aggressively social constructionist view: the external world is nothing more than a construction brought into temporary existence by social or cultural forces. Look away and it's gone - and it takes ephemera like Rudd, Tanner and others with it.

How does Joyce escape this same fate? Well, he's real. Unlike those insubstantial wraiths, Rudd, Tanner et al., Joyce is part of that “reality which”, in the words of novelist Philip K. Dick, “when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away”.

Stop believing in Rudd and Tanner - as Hockey and Abbott earnestly and repeatedly recommend - and poof! they've gone. Stop believing in Joyce - as Hockey and Abbott, persuasive evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, repeatedly refuse to do - and he's still there, still hanging round, like a doggedly loyal pet.

In this respect Joyce is irresistibly reminiscent of another Barnaby, Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge in the novel of that name, or rather not of Barnaby Rudge himself but of his pet raven, Grip. Grip is given to making tantalising but basically incomprehensible pronouncements, fluttering annoyingly around the edges of conversational gatherings, pecking at people's ankles and launching sudden, inexplicable attacks.

One of his longer outbursts goes like this: “Grip, Grip, Grip - Grip the clever, Grip the wicked, Grip the knowing - Grip Grip, Grip ... I'm a devil I'm a devil I'm a devil, Never say die Hurrah Bow wow wow, Polly put the kettle on we'll all have tea.”


The interesting thing about Grip is that he inhabits a different reality from his young master. He seems somehow more considerable than his human peers; he seems always on the verge of insights and understanding that are beyond them. For all the touching and affecting nature of the story of Barnaby and his long-suffering mother, Grip seems more sturdily “real” than either of them.

It is as if he has come from another dimension, full of ideas and potential but unable to command the vocabulary or the patience or the social judgment to make a coherent impression. As a result, he's a nuisance and, on some occasions, when his strange presence and uncannily speech-like non-talk, always on the edge of comprehension, becomes frightening or dismaying, he can be downright dangerous, inducing alarm and panic among superstitious or nervous listeners.

No wonder Edgar Allan Poe felt that Grip should have assumed a more symbolic and prophetic presence in the novel and no wonder Poe was inspired by Grip to write his famous and mysterious poem, The Raven.

Joe Hockey, though he has not revealed anything of his underlying researches, implicitly invites us to identify Barnaby Joyce with Grip and to see Rudd and Tanner as equivalents of the ineffectual Barnaby Rudge and his mother. And while this is a bit rough on Rudd and Tanner, it precisely captures Barnaby Joyce's strange other-world reasoning, his sudden apparently baseless outbursts and his air of obscure prophecy.

Joyce, we come to understand through knowing his provenance in Grip, is a kind of walking embodiment of the Uncertainty Principle. If you get anywhere near defining his position you lose track entirely of his momentum and he's out of sight before you can say “phenomenological reality”; and if you nail his momentum - with all its energy, detours, about turns, dead-ends - you lose all idea of his position.

Still, Joe Hockey seems to have worked it out. He makes a clear distinction between Barnaby Joyce and Barnaby Rudd and Barnaby Tanner. Really.

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First published in on February 24, 2010.

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About the Author

Brian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG and Manning Clark - A Life.

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