“My name is Dale Kerrigan, and this is my story. Our family lives at 3 Highview Crescent, Coolaroo. Dad bought this place 15 years ago for a steal.” With these words, that open The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997), the ideology that motivates the characters and that drives the film’s narrative becomes immediately manifest: identity is inextricably linked to home ownership, the foundation of the “Australian Dream”. Over the course of the film, tow‑truck driving, working class “battler” and Kerrigan patriarch, Darryl, defies a government agency’s attempts to compulsorily acquire his family’s home. Against all odds he succeeds in his appeal to the High Court, establishing the legal precedent that “a man’s home is his castle” – effectively codifying the ideology of the Australian Dream as law and recording a victory for the “ordinary man”.
In 2006, Mark Vaile, then Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, shared his admiration for The Castle. He is quoted as praising it for showing that “there is nothing more important than family and that sticking together through the tough times is what gets you through 2.” Vaile is not alone in his appreciation of the film, which has become adored in Australia. Indeed, many Australians strongly identify with the The Castle’s characters. A 2010 survey found that the general public felt the film best represented the “real Australia”, and that Darryl Kerrigan was their favourite Australian film character3. Select lines from the film, meanwhile, have become a part of Australian vernacular – most notably, “it’s the vibe of the thing,”, and Darryl’s oft-repeated “tell him he’s dreaming.”
Yet while The Castle’s popularity may have proven beneficial for Australian cinema, it has also had the effect of dulling the film’s subversive edge. The purpose of this essay is to bring that subversive quality back to the fore. Throughout The Castle, audiences are amused by Darryl’s delight in the most simple of pleasures: his wife’s uninspiring cooking, the serenity experienced at the family’s kit home in rural Bonnie Doon, securing a bargain through the newspaper’s classifieds sections, or the many items that take pride of place in his home’s pool room. Yet our laughter at these “simple” figures – caricatures of naïve working‑class individuals, or “Aussie Battlers” – and the distance this laughter creates between the viewer and the character, actually operates as a self-denial on the part of the supposedly more enlightened audience of their own subjection to the very same ideology that informs the Kerrigans’ actions.
Discussing the function of laughter, Mladen Dolar, a prominent member of the Ljubljana Lacanian School, writes:
Laughter is a condition of ideology. It provides us with the very space in which ideology can take its full swing. It is only with laughter that we become ideological subjects, withdrawn from the immediate pressure of ideological claims to a free enclave. It is only when we laugh and breathe freely that ideology truly has a hold on us – it is only here that it starts functioning fully as ideology, with the specifically ideological means, which are supposed to assure our free content and the appearance of spontaneity, eliminating the need for the non-ideological means of outside constraint. [emphasis in the original] 4
Yet our laughter at the The Castle’s principal characters and their adherence to the ideology of the Australian Dream in fact reflects an obliviousness to our own embeddedness within this very same ideological framework. The way in which we establish ourselves as the father to the “children” that are the Kerrigans masks our own position as children in relation to the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) that Louis Althusser identifies as operating to construct subjectivity5. The film’s exposure of patriarchal structures – Darryl taking charge to save his home and his family, and then his ultimate “rescue” thanks to the upper-crust Lawrence Hammill QC – reflects a political turn in Australia which, under the conservative government of John Howard that was elected in 1996, adopted a “leave it to the government” approach. As Lisa Milner has written, this was an era in which Australians were encouraged to feel at ease about their disengagement from politics6
Developing on the above, this paper will argue that in The Castle’s reflection of this ideological system, and of the individual’s ultimate powerlessness under it, there also exists the possibility for its very subversion. While for many The Castle may simply be a tale about a battler beating “the man” (as the Kerrigans’ comically incompetent lawyer Dennis Denuto puts it in court, “it’s your classic case of big business trying to take land and they couldn’t”), the film can also operate as a demystification and critique of prevailing ideology. Indeed, The Castle can be understood as overidentifying with ideology, and in the “surplus” of ideology in the film – this excessive association with the Australian Dream – there is a simultaneous affirmation and destabilisation of this very concept. This “subversive affirmation” – which will be explicated with reference to the writings of Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse as well as through a consideration of Slovene musical group Laibach, early proponents of such strategies – in actuality has a political effect. However comic The Castle may be, its overt representation of ideology can actually be understood as enacting a self-reflexivity on the part of the viewer that undermines the disengagement from politics that was being encouraged in late 1990s Australia.
The Australian Dream and the Kerrigans
In order to better understand the context out of which The Castle emerges, some discussion of the “Australian Dream”, to which the Kerrigans subscribe, and which has become ingrained in the collective Australian psyche, is necessary. While comparable in many respects to its more famous American counterpart, the Australian Dream centres on ownership of a detached house on a fenced-off block of land – complete with that iconic Australian invention, the Hills Hoist rotary clothes line7. In a nation principally populated by those of a migrant background, home ownership has developed an integral importance as the ultimate reflection of the opportunity presented by a new start in Australia.
In fact, home ownership is so important in Australia that its achievement has been identified as the “defining moment” in the housing careers of nearly 70 per cent of households at any one point since the 1960s8. So common was home ownership by the 1990s, that in 1991, only five years before The Castle was filmed, nearly 90 per cent of households became home owners at some stage of their lives9. Fundamentally, home ownership operates as a safety net for Australian families, and a footing for economic and personal independence.
On more structural terms, the importance of home ownership is also predicated on its position as a cornerstone of the Australian welfare state. In his examination of this welfare state’s institutional design elements, Francis G. Castles concludes:
It is impossible to understand the adequacy of Australian income support provision … without some consideration of the role of home ownership. … In Australia, where the prevailing social policy strategy has involved the modification of the primary income distribution via wage control, but state welfare expenditure is relatively low, horizontal redistribution becomes primarily a responsibility of the individual rather than the State. Individuals must save enough from their current wages to meet future eventualities, by far the most significant of which is the need for adequate income support in old age. Under these circumstances, therefore, home ownership and occupational welfare become the major guarantees of horizontal distribution for most families10.
A working paper by the Australian Institute of Family Studies explains that Australia’s statutory mandate that a living wage be paid also brings with it the responsibility to save to provide for oneself in old age11. The age pension is modest, and claimants are always income and asset tested (and are barred from disposing of assets in the five years prior to making a claim for a pension). This has meant that the primary way Australians have saved for retirement is through the purchase of owner-occupied housing which then enables forced savings to accumulate as the asset value of the house transfers to the owner-occupier through mortgage repayments. The house is generally paid off by retirement, minimising both housing costs and the amount of income support needed in later life. Thus, as Castles identifies, saving for retirement in Australia is more individually centred, as opposed to the collective saving for social security provisions that typifies many European welfare states12.
Through The Castle, we can appreciate that it is the security of home ownership that allows Darryl to delight in those very simple pleasures we mock him for enjoying. Yet Darryl’s ambitions ultimately mirror those of the many viewers who identify with him. While we may laugh at him, we also share his concerns. Thus, at stake in Darryl’s attempts to resist the compulsory acquisition of 3 Highview Crescent is not simply retention of the family home, but those very freedoms and securities that stem from its possession and which are coveted by the film’s audience.
The viewer as father
Having provided an admittedly brief illumination of the Australian Dream, I wish now to offer an explanation, through the writings of Sigmund Freud, of how a viewer’s initial response to The Castle may operate. In his 1928 journal article on humour, Freud writes:
If we turn to consider the situation in which one person adopts a humorous attitude towards others, one view … is this: that the one is adopting towards the other the attitude of an adult towards a child, and smiling at the triviality of the interests and sufferings which seem to the child so big. Thus the humourist acquires his superiority by assuming the role of the grown-up, identifying himself to some extent with the father, while he reduces the other people to the position of children. 13
A superficial reading of The Castle may do just this. When a viewer giggles at the Kerrigans and what they enjoy, when they are amused by Dennis Denuto’s incompetence, they are laughing at them. After all, even if viewers of The Castle can relate to the Kerrigans, as indeed many do, it is unlikely they truly see themselves mirrored in the exaggerated caricatures on the screen. When we parrot dialogue from the film there is a tacit acknowledgement that, in repeating this dialogue, we are “stepping down” to the Kerrigans’ level. On Freudian terms, we are the “father” to the foolish Kerrigan children.
Yet in this laughter, and one’s positioning themselves in this way, what is really occurring is a denial of one’s own status as “child” to a broader ideological structure. Freud’s essay continues by stating:
…a man adopts a humorous attitude towards himself in order to ward off possible suffering. Is there any sense in saying that someone is treating himself like a child and is at the same time playing the part of the superior adult in relation to this child? 14
This is what ultimately occurs in this common response to The Castle. The laughter of the viewer, as they witness the Kerrigans’ almost cultish dedication and devotion to their house and the accompanying ideology around the Australian Dream, masks that very same viewer’s own embeddedness within that ideology (in the Australian context at least). As described above, the idea of home ownership is so fundamental to the constitution of the Australian state that the rhetoric of the Australian Dream is inescapable. It infiltrates every aspect of life in the country, every sector of society, and is ultimately unavoidable. The only difference between the “father” and the “child” in this instance, however, is that the Kerrigans are open about their identification with this ideology, while the amused viewer thinks themselves above interpellation.
The history of subversive affirmation and Laibach
It is in the Kerrigans’ overt identification with this ideology that a truly subversive edge to The Castle might be identified. It is the film’s excess of ideology that calls into question that ideology itself – a process that, in analogous circumstances, has been labelled “subversive affirmation”. A lucid overview of this concept and its history is provided by Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse in their essay “Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance”. 15 While they locate its origins in the 1920s, Arns and Sasse attribute the increasing use of subversive affirmation in the West since the second half of the 1990s to the technique’s adoption in socialist Eastern Europe after the 1960s. They describe the practice as follows:
Subversive affirmation is an artistic/political tactic that allows artists/activists to take part in certain social, political or economic discourses and to affirm, appropriate, or consume them while simultaneously undermining them… In subversive affirmation there is always a surplus which destabilises affirmation and turns it into its opposite. 16
A paradigmatic example of this, and one necessary to interrogate before returning to The Castle, is the career of Slovene musical group Laibach – the musical wing of the broader multidisciplinary Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) art collective. Of the group, Alexei Monroe writes:
“Laibach” was the name by which the Slovene capital Ljubljana was known during the Nazi occupation of the city (1943-45) and under the Austrian Habsburg Empire (the name was first recorded in 1144). Laibach’s cross was not a direct reference to anything else, but had several associations. … [Among these are] the black cross markings on Second World War German military vehicles and aircraft17.
The problematic associations of the name Laibach, as well as the appropriation of military symbols and the violence of the posters announcing the group’s formation, naturally proved controversial, and Laibach developed some notoriety for what Marina Gržinić terms their “hyper-literal repetition of the totalitarian ritual18.” Arns and Sasse assert that:
With Laibach and NSK, we are dealing with a subversive strategy that Slavoj Žižek termed a radical “over-identification” with the “hidden reverse” of the ruling ideology regulating social relationships. By employing every identifying element delivered either explicitly or implicitly by the official ideology, Laibach Kunst and later Neue Slowenische Kunst appeared on stage and in public as an organisation that seemed “even more total that totalitarianism 19.”
Two case studies provide examples of such over-identification. The first is an event of 1986-87, when the NSK’s Novi Kolektivizem (New Collectivism) design department submitted a creation based on a Nazi poster to a competition organised for the Day of Youth celebrated on 25 May, Tito’s birthday. They received first prize for their work which simply replaced certain Nazi insignia with Yugoslav equivalents. The committee judging submissions praised NSK for their poster, arguing that it “expresses the highest ideals of the Yugoslavian state.” The Day of Youth poster controversy exemplifies NSK’s working method during this period, which Anthony Gardner explains as follows:
… NSK did not slavishly illustrate the state ideals in the manner of socialist realism or other official aesthetics. Rather, it self-consciously and controversially combined such illustrations with images from earlier totalitarian regimes, suggesting an ideological continuum between post-Tito Yugoslavia and its oppressive antecedents20.
This “hyper-literal repetition of the totalitarian ritual”, to repeat Gržinić’s words, also comes through in the aesthetics of Laibach’s music videos and live performances. Perhaps the best example is 1987’s “Opus Dei (Life is Life)”, which saw Laibach rework Austrian band Opus’ hit single “Live is Life”, turning the Top-40 feel‑good anthem on its head 21. Gone was its catchy poppiness, replaced by distorted guitars and marching drums. Suddenly the track became a fascistic call-to-arms, with Laibach’s members appearing in olive military attire and polished army boots in the accompanying music video.
When faced with such a video, and a live performance by Laibach that mirrors this same aesthetic, one does not know whether to laugh at the performance they are witnessing, or to be shocked by the overt identification with a totalitarian aesthetic.22
Yet it is only in the continual replication of nationalist iconography that the totalitarian potential of that language can be revealed. And it is in the uncertainty as to how to respond to this language, and in the accompanying self-reflexivity, that the capacity for a critique of ideology exists.
Over-identification and The Castle
While much more could be written about Laibach and NSK, I wish now to return to The Castle. The concept of subversive affirmation, for which Laibach’s actions stand as a paradigmatic example, provides a useful framework for revisiting the film and unearthing its potential to operate as a critique of ideology. It goes without saying that in The Castle there is far more overt humour and irony than in the work of Laibach. The question of whether or not the film’s content should be taken seriously never arises, nor does the film question whether the state’s conduct is totalitarian in nature. Even if Laibach are mistaken in their positing of post-Tito Yugoslavia as such a totalitarian state, the belief nevertheless infuses their work, endowing it with a gravity arguably absent in a film like The Castle. Given this distinction, and The Castle’s obviously comical nature, one might argue that there is no “over‑identification” in the film, and that only the Freudian reading of it offered earlier in this paper has currency.
However I wish to suggest, with specific reference to the unique Australian context – particularly in the aftermath of the 1996 election of John Howard’s Liberal Party to government – that over-identification and subversive affirmation are equally valid methods by which to deconstruct The Castle and its operation. As stated earlier, a large number of Australians genuinely identify with the Kerrigans; significantly, this reflects an Australian association with the underdog, and the figure of the “battler”. Crucially, the notion that the self-reliant individual constituted the backbone of Australian society was fostered by the Howard government that had just come to power when The Castle was released, and which would remain in office for eleven years thanks to the votes of working-class Australians termed “Howard’s Battlers”. Indeed, this reconstitution of the Australian as a “do-it-yourselfer” is reflected in the fact that The Castle was produced on a budget of only $750,000 AUD and filmed in a mere ten days. A low budget film that became a hit, it itself evidences the entrepreneurial spirit and self-sufficiency being championed at this time.
In his examination of this period in Australian life, political scientist Don Aitken notes an increasing individualism taking hold in the country. He asserts that Australians
…have been advised, and are content, to settle for less, for a more individualistic view of society… we have lost a strong sense of what our country “stands for”, because that is a statement about “us” rather than about “me”23.
In The Castle, the Kerrigans are ultimately left to fend for themselves. Despite the incorporation of their neighbours into their struggle against the compulsory acquisition of their homes, there is an individualistic streak, as well as a degree of fortune, to their victory. They are the battlers “doing it tough” and their predicament reflects the change occurring in Australia during this period. Their helplessness is reflected by the fact that it is only the charitable intervention of Lawrence Hammill QC that saves the Kerrigans. As David Callahan writes:
Darryl Kerrigan succeeds through the system rather than against it, suggesting that it is only on the level of the personal that the system can be made to work; one can have no faith in civil mechanisms in the maintenance of civility24.
The Kerrigans’ slavish devotion to the Australian Dream, but ultimate vulnerability, reveals the absolute absurdity of the dismantling of Australia’s welfare state during this period – a support system which, as demonstrated, is so contingent upon private home ownership. Notwithstanding the Kerrigans’ success in court, by witnessing the family’s plight the film’s audience becomes conscious of their own comparable helplessness under neoliberalism. Responses of this nature are described by Arns and Sasse when they write:
… when speaking of subversive affirmation we are not dealing with critical distance but are confronted with a critique of aesthetic experience that – via identification – is about creating a physical/psychic experience of what is being criticised25.
The excess of ideology in The Castle operates to produce such an experience and a kind of subversive affirmation, with the viewer, despite how amusing they might find the Kerrigans, ultimately identifying with and relating to the precarity of their situation. Critically, by coming to realise the similarities they share – something made possible by the film’s excessive spotlighting of the “battler” figure – the viewer takes a critical first step in any attempt to resist the neoliberal turn that demands such self-reliance.
Finally, in further support of a reading of The Castle as possessing a subversive quality, I wish to emphasise its conscious engagement with the contemporary political environment in Australia. During the film’s first courtroom scene, lawyer Dennis Denuto argues that the attempt to compulsorily acquire the Kerrigans’ home is in conflict with the “vibe” of the Constitution. In making this argument he cites as precedent 1992’s Mabo v Queensland (No. 2), a landmark constitutional law case that rejected the doctrine of terra nullius, and in so doing recognised the existence and persistence of native title under common law. While this scene may be read as naïvely associating the struggles of the Kerrigans with those of Australia’s native population and their dispossession at the hands of their European colonisers, it also reflects an awareness and engagement with the Australian political landscape that supports a reading of the film as possessing a politically engaged, and indeed consciously subversive, edge.
While the popularity of The Castle may have blunted its subversive character, this very popularity is integral to the film’s political potential. The excess of ideology in the film allows viewers, particularly those in Australia, to perceive of their own position under neoliberalism, and develop an awareness of their construction as self-reliant “battlers”. However comic The Castle may be, its overt representation of Australia’s turn towards individualism operates as a necessary first step in any attempt to resist the neoliberal paradigm, and recover some sense of collectivity.
It is also worth recognising that, even 21 years after its release, The Castle has not lost its relevance. As I write this paper, Australia’s ruling Liberal Party has changed its leader with the hope – amongst other things – that it will improve their prospects of re-election in 2019. In justifying the decision to depose a sitting Prime Minister – an increasingly regular occurrence over the past decade – one parliamentarian stated: “… [a new leader] will be able to reconnect with the Howard battlers [and] bring them back into the … fold26.” Not only are “Howard’s Battlers” as relevant as ever, but the importance of home ownership remains as fundamental to the constitution of Australian society, even if the purchase of a home is becoming increasingly unattainable for Australia’s younger generations. Given Australia’s increasingly bleak political outlook, now seems an ideal moment to revisit The Castle and rehabilitate its capacity to critique existing ideological structures, and, most importantly, to subvert their dominant rhetoric.
- This paper developed out of a seminar on cinema and ideology taken with Professor Pavle Levi at Stanford University, and I would like to thank him for his insightful feedback as I worked on a preliminary draft of the piece. ↩
- Mark Vaile, quoted in Lisa Milner, “Kenny: the evolution of the battler figure in Howard’s Australia,” Journal of Australian Studies 33, no. 2 (2009): p. 160. ↩
- See Isabel Hayes, “The Castle best represents Aussies,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October 6 2010, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/the-castle-best-represents-aussies-20101006-1674q.html; and “The Castle hero Darryl Kerrigan best represents Australians: survey,” The Australian, 6 October 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/the-castle-hero-darryl-kerrigan-represents-australians-best-survey/story-e6frg6n6-1225934896300. ↩
- Mladen Dolar, cited in Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), p. 4. ↩
- See Louis Althusser, “Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation” in Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, Ben Brewster, trans. (London: NLB, 1977), pp. 121-176. ↩
- Milner, “Kenny: the evolution of the battler figure in Howard’s Australia”: p. 157. During this era, social commentator Hugh Mackay also reflected that: ‘It’s really a case of leave it to (Prime Minister) Howard, leave it to the Government. See Hugh Mackay, quoted in Michelle Grattan, “Following Howard’s way to victory in war for a nation’s soul,” The Age, 21 February 2006, p. 1. ↩
- See David Hayward, “The Great Australian Dream reconsidered,” Housing Studies 1 (1986): p. 213; Jim Kemeny, The Myth of Home Ownership (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1981); and Ian Winter, The Radical Home Owner: Housing Tenure and Social Change (Basel: Gordon and Breach, 1994). ↩
- Steven C. Bourassa, Alastair W. Greig and Patrick N. Troy, “The limits of housing policy: home ownership in Australia,” Housing Studies 10, no. 1 (1995): p. 83. ↩
- Max Neutze and Hal L. Kendig, “Achievement of home ownership among post-war Australian cohorts,” Housing Studies 6, no. 1 (1991): p. 8. ↩
- Francis G. Castles, “The institutional design of the Australian Welfare State,” International Social Security Review 50, no. 2 (1997), pp. 33-4. ↩
- See Australian Institute of Family Studies, Social polarisation and housing careers: Exploring the interrelationship of labour and housing markets in Australia (Working Paper No. 13 – March 1998). ↩
- Francis G. Castles, The Working Class and Welfare (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985). ↩
- Sigmund Freud, “Humour,” in The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 9 (1928): p. 3. ↩
- Freud, “Humour”: pp. 3-4. ↩
- See Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse, “Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance,” in East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, IRWIN, ed. (Cambridge; London: MIT Press; Afterall, 2006), pp. 444-55. ↩
- Arns and Sasse, “Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance,” p. 445. ↩
- Alexei Monroe, Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK (Cambridge, Massachussets; London, England: The MIT Press, 2005), p. 3. ↩
- Marina Gržinić, “Neue Slowenische Kunst,” in Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, Dubravka Djurić and Miško Šuvaković, eds. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003), p. 249. ↩
- Arns and Sasse, “Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance,” p. 448. ↩
- Anthony Gardner, Politically Unbecoming: Postsocialist Art Against Democracy (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The MIT Press, 2015), p. 120. ↩
- Monroe, Interrogation Machine, p. 231. ↩
- Slavoj Žižek describes the response to Laibach thus:
The first reaction of the enlightened Leftist critics was to conceive of Laibach as the ironic imitation of totalitarian rituals; however, their support of Laibach was always accompanied by an uneasy feeling: “What if they really mean it? What if they truly identify with the totalitarian ritual?” – or, a more cunning version of it, transferring one’s own doubt onto the other: “What if Laibach overestimates their public? What if the public takes seriously what Laibach mockingly imitates, so that Laibach actually strengthens what it purports to undermine?” Slavoj Žižek, “Why Are Laibach and NSK not Fascists?,” in NSK: From Kapital to Capital, p. 203. ↩
- Don Aitken, “What Was It For?: The Inaugural Don Aitken Lecture,” University of Canberra, 25 November 2005. ↩
- David Callahan, “His Natural Whiteness: Modes of Ethnic Presence and Absence in Some Recent Australian Films,” in Australian Cinema in the 1990s, Ian Craven, ed. (London; Portland: Frank Cass, 2001), p. 105. ↩
- Arns and Sasse, “Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance,” p. 446. ↩
- Mathias Cormann, quoted in “Scott Morrison sworn in as Australia’s 30th prime minister – politics live”, The Guardian, 24 August 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/live/2018/aug/24/liberal-spill-malcolm-turnbull-peter-dutton-scott-morrison-liberal-spill-politics-parliament-live. ↩