This has been in my drafts folder for a couple of weeks and I may as well post it, with the caveat that it’s a draft, and I had more to say, but am trying to make good on my promises.
It’s ironic that the discussion about recent interpretations of ‘mateship’ should also become a meta-discussion about snark around the blogging traps: whether friends should snark at each other, and whether, in cyberspace, we can be friends. The discussion on Glen’s blog has finally erupted into an example of the perils of ‘mateship’ itself. Under the terms of mateship, we are all supposedly friendly enough to understand each others’ jokes, even when the supposed joke is not very funny.
In the comments thread on Glen’s response to Angela, I’ve been trying to point out what I understand to be the micropolitical dimension of ‘mateship’. Responding, Glen edited his post — and mis-spelt Angela’s name. The mis-spelling was brought to his attention, whereupon he claimed it was a joke. He also said that those who might not get the joke were evidently “too attached to identity” — academese for “Can’t you take a joke?” He also said something about how lucky it was that Ange’s surname doesn’t have any weird characters because that would stuff him up even more. It’s just… well, it doesn’t feel like the Internet gets more bizarre than this. I don’t understand why Glen keeps going on about recuperating politically dodgy crap like mateship, but if he wants to waste time fdoing it that’s his business.
I have a tendency when these discussions take place to obliquely ‘poke fun’ rather than ‘try to be helpful’, and although I’m not at all sure it will help, I think this exchange finally warrants a serious excavation rather than my previous response, which was spamming, “If you can’t pronounce their name just call them mate!” I still think that refrain says it all: it’s an axiom of mateship and it reveals the moment in which mateship becomes racialised, slightly aggressive, an attempt to de-other the Other.
So I’m thinking about moments in which I’ve had the urge to call people ‘mate’ before. This is ‘mate’ as distinct from ‘matey’, which enjoyed a brief popularity in alterna-left circles around 2000. When I feel like I need to say ‘mate’, I’m usually trying to pass as as a guy. I’m usually talking to a guy, and I’m usually involved in an economic transaction of some kind. I do think ‘mate’ is specific to Australia: I’ve never heard an Aotearoan say ‘mate’, and English people usually think it’s some weird Aussie thing.
Calling someone ‘mate’ has to do with the assumption of a familiarity that is about class, and race and gender. You may refer to your friends as ‘your mates’ in Australia, but the most marked instances of ‘mateing’ someone are with people you don’t know, rather than friends. I’m going to say that this is something like the limit of ‘mate’ as a form of address, and additionally that it’s at the limit that you might identify what makes the rule a rule. The assumption of false intimacy or familiarity can only proceed, in a situation, if someone experiences a managerial disposition in relation to the other person. I mean ‘managerial’ in the sense Ghassan Hage used it in White Nation: managerial meanshaving more social power, the power to imagine managing other bodies who have less power than you — the power to institute the law (of private social exchange or national borders, whichever is at stake).
So, it’s gendered — who would call a woman ‘mate’ unless as an ironic gesture (or he thought she was a dyke?) It’s about constructing a position wherein both parties are on the ’same level’, superficially, but the politics of who gets to be familiar are all about delineating subtle class boundaries. I get to be familiar with you, but you’re still the hired help — or the folks that are only able to dispense ‘exotic’, ‘othered’ hospitality to me.